October 26, 2005

Dumbing Business

Why does current American business writing assume that the people who make crucial decisions, affecting the fate of thousands and spending millions of dollars, are stupid?

Cliff Atkinson's Beyond Bullet Points undertakes a commendable and necessary mission. It demonstrates that PowerPoint presentations don't need to be dull lists of bullet points against blue gradient backgrounds, accompanied by chart junk. It makes an intriguing argument for structuring business arguments as 3-act narratives in which the audience is invited to see itself as the protagonist.

It's not really a 3-act narrative: in Atkinson, there's no third act. Atkinson's narrative scheme is closer to a one-act play: we set the scene and establish the conflict, we describe the steps to be taken to address the conflict, and then we conclude with a resolution. We have 'Once upon a time' and we have 'Then, one day', but there's no time for the third act, 'There was one thing they had forgotten.'

Beyond Bullet Points is written in short, simple sentences. Diagrams make each point clear. Short sidebars reinforce the rules. A scenario brings the message home: we have a new job and the Board Of Directors wants a presentation right away that doesn't have boring bullet points and does convince them that the new ten million dollar marketing plan is sound.

All this is sound, as far as it goes. Atkinson's view of narrative is reductive -- it's not nearly as sophisticated as Brenda Laurel's Computers as Theater, which itself has been criticized for its training wheels. The approach is rigid, but after sitting through so many terrible presentations at conferences and trade shows, perhaps rigid guidelines are needed.

But need the sentences be so short? Must the instructions be so simple and plain? Must we reduce theory -- literary and scientific -- to simple declarative summaries without nuance or qualification? When did we declare war against the comma?

This isn't a particular fault of Atkinson -- and he deserves praise for possessing an argument instead of simply repeating the mechanics of the manual. It seems to be endemic in current American business writing. Assume a poorly educated reader. Hold their hand through the simplest program mechanics. Use short sentences. Omit raw data that might confuse or distract.

See the Board of Directors run. Run, Board! Run!