A Guide to Engaging Sales Presentations – Do not use Powerpoint


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On Wednesday last week, I had the pleasure of sitting in a one day course entitled “Presenting Data and Information” presented by Prof. Edward Tufte.

For those who don’t know Edward Tufte, he has written seven books, including Beautiful Evidence, Visual Explanations, Envisioning Information, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, and Data Analysis for Politics and Policy. He writes, designs, and self-publishes his books on analytical design, which have received more than 40 awards for content and design. He is Professor Emeritus at Yale University, where he taught courses in statistical evidence, information design, and interface design.

Most readers of this blog will either come from sales or marketing professions and this blog/message is written in this context. It is muted from the polemic curse Tufte places on the use of PowerPoint for presenting scientific evidence and technical information, citing the use of PowerPoint as the reporting medium and a contributing factor in the 2003 space shuttle Columbia accident.

In his 5 hour seminar, Tufte used powerful imagery, but no bullets, nor chart junk, nor boxes with drop shadows; he distributed high quality notes in the form of his four best-selling books. These were included in the price of admission and were referenced frequently throughout the day to rapidly convey vast amounts of information and to support key points.

To make indelible points, he displayed work from an original 1570 English publication of Euclid’s “The Elements of Geometry”, including the elegant proof of Pythagoras theorom and the World’s first “pop-up” – a paper fold-out, which formed a pyramid to escape the 2-D flat-land of the text page and illustrate the point. He also quoted from and displayed references from his 1613 publication of Galileo Galileo’s beautiful “History and Demonstrations Concerning Sunspots” – shown in the photograph.

I think it’s worth summarizing a few points Tufte made as they relate to our profession of selling and marketing technology products and services. The following are notes in no particular order on comments he made in the lecture or wrote in his essay, “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint” or ideas I wanted to share.

On PowerPoint

“PowerPoint comes with a big attitude and is presenter oriented, not content oriented, not audience oriented.”

Instead of a standard PowerPoint presentation, Tufte urges us to ask the client “Lets just talk about your business”. Try this approach at your next meeting, where you might be planning to show a presentation to introduce your product/services. What do you think the client is more interested in, a discussion about their business, or a presentation on your products?

On Making Presentations

Tufte states, “making a presentation has two elements,

  1. Your story – content,
  2. Credibility – i. what is the presenter’s reputation (reasons to believe), ii. do they include reference links to quoted material, iii. are they competent, i.e. have they mastery of the details – causality.”

On distributing printed material in advance of the meeting/presentation

1. The human eye/brain is capable of processing information 300% faster than the spoken word. Therefore a document should be distributed in advance of any meeting that contains, words, sentences and paragraphs that can be read along with supporting factual evidence, to maximize content reasoning time and minimize content figuring-out time.

2. The technique for effective meetings if you are the presenter is to circulate a hand-out with a superset of the information prior to the meeting. When the meeting starts, review specific elements of the material of interest, take Q&A and you should reduce meeting time by 30%.

3. He quoted Microsoft’s CEO Steve Ballmer’s advice to a team making a presentation to him in a meeting. “Im tired of the long and winding road of PowerPoint. Use Word instead of PowerPoint and use sentences instead of bullets; and send me a briefing document in advance, with your recommendations.”

Tufte states that PowerPoint is inefficient compared to the written word and both “contraptionary and opaque” in the presentation of data and information.

On PowerPoint for Presentations

A pet peeve is the “build“, a slow reveal, bullet by bullet presentation. I think we all agree with Tufte that the presenters of these are “patronising, condescending and authoritarian in presuming they can dictate when the audience can read the presentation”.

Tufte suggests that we should be delighted when the audience wants to read our material in advance. After all the goal of the presentation is to have the audience interact with us and our content, they should not have to suffer through a poor metaphor in delivering it.

An Effective Presentation is about Interaction with the Content and Audience.

Tufte is critical of what he call the cognitive style of PowerPoint in that “formats, sequencing, and cognitive approach should be decided by the character of the content and what is to be explained, not by the limitations of the presentation technology.”

He uses a metaphor for presentations – good teaching. The core ideas of teaching are—“explanation, reasoning, finding things out, questioning, content, evidence, credible authority not patronising authoritarianism.” – and these are contrary to the cognitive style of PowerPoint.”

I find it hard to improve on Tufte’s good teaching metaphor for sales and marketing presentations.

Mastery of Content is Power

Tufte is critical of PowerPoint’s cognitive style in encouraging presenter laziness in the delivery of material, relying on bullets in slides to tell their story, rather than owning the material and supporting it with factual evidence (proof points).

When salespeople are forced to write out their thoughts in fully formed sentences, they increase their cognitive mastery of the material. This adds credibility and enables alternate presentation technique including conversation, whiteboarding, use of flip-charts, questions and answers, positioning papers, case studies, benchmarking, analyst reports and written client success stories.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Mark Gibson
Mark Gibson has been at the forefront of developing sales and marketing tools that create clarity in messaging value for 30 years. As a consultant he is now engaged in helping sales, marketing and enablement teams to get clear about value creation. Clarity attracts inbound leads, clarity converts visitors into leads and leads into customers, clarity builds mindshare, clarity engages customers, clarity differentiates value, clarity helps onboard new hires clarity helps raise funds, clarity + execution win markets.


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