The Corporate Shrink

Why are we obsessed with PowerPoint?

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on FastCompany

Why are we so obsessed with PowerPoint? It seems as if no one ever gives a presentation anymore without a deck of a dozen or more slides. Is there something wrong with this, or should I just get over it? (issue 97, page 96)

I do think there’s something wrong with this, but I also think you should get over it. PowerPoint is here to stay, in part because Microsoft has embedded it masterfully in our business consciousness. And give the guys in Redmond their due: Used well, those slides add powerful visual reinforcement to the spoken word, because we learn through multiple sensory inputs simultaneously.

But I agree that we’re obsessed with it, too. When executives see PowerPoint – or any technology, for that matter – as obligatory rather than helpful, it becomes a crutch, which is no good for anyone. I’d rather stare at my navel for an hour than sit through another presentation where someone reads aloud what I could as easily read for myself.

Your question, though, gets at something deeper. The best presentations are those that evoke a sense of conversation, establishing an emotional connection between speaker and audience. This phenomenon applies whatever the subject matter. In fact, I’ve heard CFOs engagingly bring gray data, and their financial strategy, to life with little more than warmth and a sense of humor.

There are many ways to establish this human bond – and just as many, besides PowerPoint, to destroy it. A speaker can distance himself from his audience with a monotonous voice, a condescending attitude, or a misreading of the audience – none of which can be blamed on Microsoft.

I sit through a lot of meetings – some good, some bad. But I have a problem that is becoming increasingly embarrassing: I can’t stay awake. It tends to be worse for specific meetings, and as much as I try to load up with coffee or fight it, I just can’t keep my eyes open. What should I do?

I’m tempted to coin a new diagnosis: sleepy meeting syndrome. You aren’t alone. We’ve all felt that urge to nod off at one time or another. But when it happens frequently or at inopportune moments, it can damage your career. I’m convinced that, more often than not, this has a psychological basis.

I assume you’ve already ruled out physical explanations such as narcolepsy or sleep apnea – and that you’re not partying every night till the wee hours. If so, you’re into the emotional realm. Sleepiness can be a psychological defense mechanism, a way of shutting out the world. Some people get dozy in the middle of a conversation, just when they’re approaching an uncomfortable subject.

From a psychoanalytic perspective, moreover, there’s more to drowsiness than boredom alone (see “dull PowerPoint presentations,” above). Your yawns can be a response to states of prolonged passivity, and can conceal feelings of suppressed anger, envy, or competitiveness toward the speaker.

So ask yourself what’s really going on in those tough meetings. It may be that you feel unable or afraid to speak up, or that you hate the person running the meeting. Perhaps you feel intense rivalry with someone in the room. A little self-analysis like this can really make a difference and can allow you to reengage with your eyes open.

Enough for now. Time for my nap.

Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and founder of The Boswell Group LLC, advises executives on leadership, management, and governance. Send him your questions about the psychology of business (