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PowerPoint is not Word or Excel

We look at why people use PowerPoint like an extension of Word or Excel. They may end up creating slides that are akin to PowerPoint disasters.

Many bad presentations are a result of not using PowerPoint as a slide creation tool at all. Does that sound like a cryptic statement? Then let me unravel it for you: many Office users think of PowerPoint as an extension to Word and Excel, the other programs that Microsoft bundled in the Office box.

It gets worse. Not only do some users believe that PowerPoint is like Word or Excel, they even use it that way. Imagine approaching PowerPoint with a Word or Excel approach? Since Microsoft has kept the interface in all these three programs so similar, Word and Excel users are comfortable with PowerPoint from the minute they start using it. In fact, some of them don't even notice that they are not using Word or Excel!

The similarities are too many:

  • You can insert charts, pictures, or tables in the same way in PowerPoint as you would do in Word or Excel.
  • You format text the same way.
  • The same context sensitive tabs appear on the Ribbon.

On another front, I always mention in my training sessions that:

  • Word is akin to a printed page as in a document, letter, or even a magazine.
  • Excel is akin to a large newspaper sheet that has tables with stock prices.
  • PowerPoint is akin to a visiting card. You won't have more than 4 or 5 phrases of text in a visiting card!


So why do we get surprised when Word users create slides that have tons of text. Look at the sample in Figure 1.


Figure 1: A bad slide

This slide is part of a presentation created by Boeing for NASA that was critiqued by Professor Edward Tufte.

And let's move on to Excel now. Figure 2 shows a PowerPoint slide created by the Pentagon to assess some activities in Afghanistan. If you thought that was bad, look at Figure 3 that shows what Wired magazine calls Pentagon’s craziest PowerPoint slide! It doesn't require a certification in space science to realize that these text-heavy slides are inspired by long spreadsheets, and have been created by Excel users!

You can click both Figures 2 and 3 to see a larger view of these slides.


Figure 2: Slide created by the Pentagon


Figure 3: Pentagon’s craziest PowerPoint slide

Maybe it's time to make things simpler for Word and Excel users trying to use PowerPoint:

  1. Don't cram things into your slide that won't fit into a visiting card.
  2. If you need to show the extra content, print the stuff from Word as a multi-page document that attendees can look at later. If you can send by email, choose Word's PDF save option and save some trees in the bargain.
  3. If you must show the actual content in Excel, try linking to those actual documents from within PowerPoint. You can then scroll and navigate within the larger Excel sheet and highlight the important info.
  4. Close Excel and you'll be back in your uncomplicated PowerPoint slide (again remember a visiting card). Refer to this tutorial to learn how to link to Excel from within PowerPoint: Working with Other Programs: Link to Excel Cells and Ranges from PowerPoint.

Geetesh Bajaj (Glossary Page)