Productivity, Not PowerPoint 📊

Silicon Valley tells us that software is eating the world — for most people that just means Microsoft Office is eating their workday. 

Take a moment to check the applications you have running. How many Microsoft Office products are on that list?

Word, Excel, and PowerPoint are now baseline skills for most entry-level positions. College graduates joining the workforce can expect to find these tools required for 4 out of 5 open positions.

This is unsurprising, really; productivity tools serve as general purpose applications that come pre-installed with each desktop. They are good enough for most office tasks and mysterious terms like “VBA” and “macros” float around college business classes. When I was an undergrad, I had an image of using Excel in my day job where I would write these mysterious macros that would be very impressive and useful. 

There are entire college curricula based on teaching Excel (looking at you University of Phoenix), none of which would make money if Excel’s advanced features were intuitive or easy to use. 

Making Progress

In reality, people use Excel to make tables and do algebra. 

I want to emphasize — plenty of jobs require making tables and doing algebra all day, and Excel is designed to do that very well. The problem is that 30 years of development has allowed Microsoft to cram every feature under the sun into their applications. When a company has a problem that requires something other than table-making and algebra, employees will try to solve it using the tools they have at their disposal. As a result, Excel has become the default choice for list-making, data storage, and other less-than-optimal tasks, just because it’s a familiar interface. This is at odds with what the application is intended for; since businesses are buying it, workers are okay with a product that is really good at a few things (table-making, algebra) and okay at a bunch of other things (data visualization, lists). Even if your job does not involve Excel, it is included in your workflow because of its broad and effective distribution. 

It’s not just Excel; PowerPoint can format a beautiful hammer for every nail that needs a business case. This works for creative types making pitch decks, but the majority of slides are 3 columns of text with a bad corporate color scheme. No status meeting is complete without a static dashboard and text that has been thoroughly reviewed and subsequently stripped of all useful information. PowerPoint is meant to convey ideas with visual design and storytelling, but it has morphed into something else; it breaks down when it becomes the default way to share information within a company. The majority of employers do not provide the extensive training needed to convey ideas in an executive format. Instead we receive walls of text on slides, and the important presentations are outsourced to designers and consultants at 2x the normal rate.

Word has found a niche for nearly all corporate document creation, despite its many quirks. Anyone who has tried to cooperate on editing with a group knows the pain of tracking changes and version control. Exporting to non-Microsoft applications is difficult by design, and the ability to store on the Cloud is an afterthought that is just barely being addressed today. Word processors are over-engineered for most memos, yet still fall short when trying to collaborate or draft non-boilerplate documents. These tools were designed to foster communication, but have failed to stay relevant in a world where messaging is increasingly done via email and chat.

The dominance of these tools is firmly ingrained into the culture of Big Companies. Graduates join corporations and spend their whole day living and breathing the software — it is only natural that these habits are reinforced when the same employees mature into management roles. Employees know that “work” is done in Excel, and then emailed and reviewed and sent again along the chain. This is a fantastic way to stay very busy but accomplish little to address the underlying business needs.

Productivity is a vector: it has a magnitude and a direction. Productivity apps create considerable magnitude, yet the direction is often misaligned with the objective. To address issues with productivity in the workplace, we need to consider how to shift the direction of focus.

Consider long form writing as an alternative to PowerPoint.

We are social creatures. This means we are very interested in relationships and systems between people. When sharing information, be sure to do so in a way that has a compelling narrative. In consulting we called this process storyboarding. Unfortunately, most of the content gets lost as we consider how to make the presentation visually appealing, rather than logically appealing. 

Amazon does not allow PowerPoint to be used during meetings. They also seem to be doing just fine with this approach. In a letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos outlines his approach to executive meetings. 

We don’t do PowerPoint (or any other slide-oriented) presentations at Amazon. Instead, we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of “study hall.” Not surprisingly, the quality of these memos varies widely. Some have the clarity of angels singing. They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion. Sometimes they come in at the other end of the spectrum.

This tells us that, on average, the quality of discussion resulting from a written argument is higher than the same topic being presented in slide format. There are several reasons for this:

  • A presentation means talking at the audience rather than talking with them. In contrast, a written memo allows the reader to receive the topic in its entirety; discussion happens once everyone has access to the same information. 

  • An individual may not agree with the information in a presentation, but they do not want to interrupt the speaker in front of a group. If the individual waits until the end to ask their question, they may forget to do so, or the speaker will be able to adjust the narrative. 

  • Information presented in spoken form is inconsistent, and can be influenced by a speakers stage presence or appearance. 

Next time you have a meeting where the outcome is discussion, take a week or more to clearly articulate your position in writing. You’ll be surprised with how much more clear your understanding of the problem will become.

📚 Reading

Book recommendation for the week:

Nightfall is an essay by Isaac Asimov that was converted into a book of the same name. It details the societal reaction to a pending catastrophe and the resulting effects. The catastrophe is based on the premise that the majority of solar systems in our galaxy are composed of binary stars — two stars orbiting each other, rather than the singular sun to which we are accustomed. In a system with multiple suns, the daylight cycle is extended, and Nightfall is focused on a planet bathed in perpetual sunlight. When a rare astronomical event threatens to bring twilight to the planet, a number of factions appear. Start with the essay, and if it catches your attention then the book will not disappoint.

🔗 Links

Shopify’s State of Commerce report. The report breaks down buyers into four categories: 1) Trend Trackers 2) Engaged Explorers 3) Savvy Searchers 4) Pragmatic Planners Link.

Bloomberg coverage of the political rallies happening in Hong Kong. Link.

💎 Quote of the Week

So if you really go the whole way and see how you feel at the prospect of vanishing forever. Have all your efforts, and all your achievements, and all your attainments turning into dust and nothingness. What is the feeling? What happens to you? 

I first discovered Alan Watts from a sample on Azedia’s Something. I didn’t know the source, but his words echoed in my head for years. When I finally tracked down the author I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of his essays were compiled into a slim novel titled “Become What You Are”. Watts explains Eastern philosophy with a familiar and carefree tone that conveys many of his thoughts on death and consciousness. If you’re looking for a dose of perspective, Watts is a good entry to the school of Zen.

📺 Videos

A good explanation of Starlink and the use cases for such a system, including improved speed for Wall Street and high frequency trading:

This week the US House held a hearing to discuss the proliferation of Deepfakes and mitigation strategies. The expert panel included testimonies from AI researchers, policy makers, and university professors. You can read the press release here.


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