Thursday, February 4, 2016

PowerPoint and Time Travel

If I had a time machine, I think would go back to about 1987, infiltrate Microsoft, and do my very best to prevent PowerPoint from being invented, in much the same way as the Terminator going back to prevent John Connor from being born. I think this would the world a much better place. 

To be honest, there is really nothing wrong with PowerPoint. If you have to train a group of people in a short amount of time and just want to cover the highlights, PowerPoint is the way to go. The problem is when you try to use it for something it is not intended, namely technical documentation. At my old company, we had thousands of technical documents in PowerPoint. 

The Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) assured us the customers liked it, but the truth of the matter is that the SMEs liked it. They liked to think in bullet points. What I discovered when I would sit in on customer training sessions with these PowerPoint decks was that much was lost in the translation. Often the SMEs would skip over certain slides and spend 10 minutes explaining the bullets on others. 

Looking at the material, we knew it was lacking and set out to get rid of PowerPoint or at least limit it to training sessions where someone would be going over the material in a classroom setting. If it wasn't intended for training, we would convert to them documents. Simple, right? Not if you care about your information. 

The simple approach to converting PowerPoint decks into documents is to take all of the section title slides and make those chapter headings. Then turn all of the slide titles into headings and all of the bullets into complete sentences and you're done, right? Well, yes. You will have something that looks like a real document. It will have chapters and section headings, and you can make a table of contents.

At a glance, it will look like a real document, but when you read it, it doesn't say very much. It has lots of little one-paragraph sections. If the section title slides were done well, at least. it's organized, but likely they weren't, and it's not. Well, what are you going to do? Hopefully, a whole lot better.

Your first and best option is to find your SME and have them give you the training like for a customer. Record it. Note any spots, where slides are skipped. Possibly these can be eliminated or at least severely edited. And those ten minutes that the SME spends on one slide, you now can transcribe and try to make sense of it. 

Of course, that may not be possible. SMEs are busy people. Besides, that's why they have technical writers, right? Well, yeah. That's why we make the big bucks. Whether or not, you have access to the SME, the real work is still ahead.

Save a copy of the original file, you might need to refer to it after you start. Avoid the temptation of turning all of the bullets into complete sentences. Some of them might really be bullets. Also don't make the section title slides in chapters just yet. It might send you down a bad road and make it harder to see the structure you're looking for. Your best bet is just read it as it is. Then read it again. You probably need to read it four or five times. Fortunately, with PowerPoint, it shouldn't take that long to read, even several times.

Eventually, the structure will emerge. You'll notice groups of slides that discuss the same topic. That's where your sections come from. Maybe you need to create new headings to encompass them. Those slide titles that at a glance look like headings will often turn into the topic sentences for paragraphs made out of bullets that fall under them. Now is the time to turn those bullets into sentences and figure out which ones really should still be bullets.

You might end up with a lot of sections and no chapters, but look at it again. Maybe the sections are just in the wrong order and moving them around will show you where the larger groupings should be. Maybe, looking at the original file and the section title slides will help. Keep going until you find chapters for your sections. What you end up with may not be perfect, but it will be way better than where you started. Going forward, you have something to build on.

And the time machine, well, it would probably make a lot more sense to bring back something of value that I could sell in 1987 and use the money to buy as much Microsoft stock as possible at 1987 prices. Then I could just retire and never have to worry about PowerPoint again. Maybe somewhere out there is a PowerPoint deck waiting to be turned into a something useful that will unlock the secrets of time travel. I can dream, can't I.


  1. Hi Chris,
    Yup. Presentations are not documents and documents are not presentations. Here's one of my favorite graphics w/re to the topic.

    take care,

  2. Dennis, Right on, man. That is too funny. If I never see another PowerPoint, it will be too soon. Thanks for stopping by.