More times than not, PowerPoint has become the default tool for almost anything business related (next to Excel). Whenever a some sort of deliverable is needed, people automatically think PowerPoint. I’ve even heard companies say “if it’s not in PowerPoint, it’s not official”. While PowerPoint has many uses, it’s not good for everything and it’s important to consider the format of your deliverable before you set about creating it.

The phrase “form follows function” has become a rallying cry of anyone who designs something that people use over the last few decades and has become even more important with the rise and maturity of user experience (UX) design in the digital world. The phrase, originating from American architect Louis Sullivan in the 1930s, argues that what a thing looks like should be dictated by what it is to be used for. The form of something, should be guided by (or informed directly by) the function of it. A bird has wings and is aerodynamic because it needs to fly. This is the reason why birds don’t look like hippos. While that world would be hilarious to live in, it is not the way things are.

Form follows function. Designing a document should be no different.

Determine the function of your document before you set about creating it. You may think you need a short presentation with a few words per slide… but if your audience has no idea on the background of your topic and you need to continually refer back to the document you’re creating (like a training manual or process document), you may really need a single-spaced, 10-page Word document.

Ask these three questions to determine your documents function:

  1. How long do you have to present?
    Knowing the amount of time to present is arguably the most crucial piece of information you can have before starting out. A two-hour workshop or lecture will be drastically different than a five-minute overview of a topic. Conversely, you may not have any time to present at all and instead your document will be e-mailed to a team or group. Which leads into the next question…
  2. Is it more likely the document will be a stand-alone or will it be presented with a voice over every time?
    Without a voice over and a presenter to “add light” to different topics and ideas within the presentation, subtext and additional useful information can often be lost. If a document is to be presented only, then it’s usually okay to leave out some details and stick to a few bullet points. But, if the document is to be sent around and read as a stand-alone instead of being presented, you might want to include full sentences and larger appendix with more background. Speaking of additional background…
  3. How familiar is your audience with your subject matter?
    If your audience has no clue what you’re going to be talking about (for instance, if you’re going to teach a group of Ornithologists about why dark energy is important) you’ll need to include sufficient amount of background. Now, this background information can be brief or detailed depending on how long you have, but either way it’s highly important. Setting the stage and establishing the right context of what you’ll be talking about is paramount to people following along, caring about what you’re talking about and remembering it later on.

After you’ve got those questions answered you should be well on your way to knowing what type of document you’ll need to create. Here’s a short guide on when to use which types of document:

When to PowerPoint:

  • The document will be presented more often than it will be read as a stand-alone
  • The document covers only a few subjects to varying depths
  • There is a set time where you can present the material to a group or individual

When NOT to PowerPoint (and instead consider creating a Word doc):

  • The document will be read as a stand-alone more often than it will be presented, requiring full sentences and paragraphs
  • The document covers a multitude of subjects in detailed manner
  • There is no set time to present, or you are unable to schedule a time but need the information to be distributed sooner rather than later

Lastly, a huge pro-tip for people who have a lot to say about a given topic is to not forget about the highly useful leave behind. The leave behind is a document that you literally leave behind after you present. It’s a doc that covers any additional information that was not absolutely essential for the presentation. This could be slides in an appendix, a one-sheeter or a Word doc with all necessary background info.

So next time you’re about to double click on PowerPoint, make sure you know what function your document has to take.


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