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Why are We Addicted to Decks?

Seek first to understand…

A good friend reminded me the other day of Covey’s 5th Habit, and I knew it was time to explore this phenomenon in greater depth. After all, any successful mission requires we know how high the odds are stacked against us. So why ARE we addicted to presentation decks?

What happens in our brains when we have the opportunity to present?

We’re taught pretty early in business culture that confidence under pressure yields more responsibility and expanded roles. We bet our career growth – and the financial rewards that come with it – on our ability to respond to opportunities. A recent study by Forbes suggests these opportunities have multiplied exponentially, and also posits that in the information age we’re only as valuable as what we share.

When you consider this perception alongside learnings about modern employee engagement, it starts to add up. According to Fast Company, the #1 measure of satisfaction in the workplace is “I am working on something I’d be proud to share with others.” So when we get the chance to take the stage, we’re met with a flood of physiological reactions.

Reactions like what?

Let’s crack open our biochemistry books and turn to the chapter called “Adrenaline.” This hormone is a fickle mistress, as it’s often misleading. When faced with a stimulus, whether threat or opportunity, our primitive brains can only respond in one way. We release adrenaline, which converts our default, idling, alpha brain waves to a frequency that sends us into action. This frequency is made of beta waves, and they’re hungry for something to process. The brain’s operation in the beta range can indicate anything from concentration to anxiety to all-out stress. Mental Health Daily reports many addicts produce an overabundance of beta activity, which is our body’s trigger to engage the stimulus and hopefully return to the alpha state.

We can trace our evolutionary roots back to any number of organisms (depending especially on the theory to which you might subscribe), but if there’s one thing we know for sure it’s that humans are wired to survive. So the “fight or flight” sensation – the same one that convinces us we need to solve a problem – is related to millennia of lessons learned. Lessons like “Oh crap, that tiger’s gonna eat me,” and “I bet if I chased and killed that water buffalo it’d feed my family for weeks.”

Whether we intend to defend or hunt, we turn to our weapons. We pick up the tools we’ll use to process this situation, and return to comfort.

But this psychology isn’t limited to life-or-death situations. In fact, Harvard Business Review has published many studies on ways this behavior manifests at work. So when stimulated (in beta state) by the chance to present, if a threat and an opportunity look the same, what tools do we have to attack it?

Naturally, we turn to convention.

Imagine aforementioned tiger, prone, bearing its teeth, about to pounce at you. Is now the time to experiment with new methods? Do you have the luxury of sharpening a new blade, or brainstorming ways to improve on the bow & arrow? Sure, if you really hate living. Instead, we turn to the most efficient way we know to process the threat and return to alpha. When we’re faced with a presentation, there are a handful of options but generally speaking, slides are our arrows. Screens are our bows. According to Microsoft:

  • There are roughly 500 million users of PowerPoint.
  • We produce 30 million decks daily.
  • The average PowerPoint session runs for 250 minutes, startup to shutdown.
  • The average slide holds 40 words.

So that’s where we turn. We use PowerPoint – and other presentation software – because it’s there. It worked the last time. It got us out of this pit-in-stomach feeling before, so we trust it again. We do a deck.

What’s the first thing we see when we open our presentation software? It’s familiar, warm, inviting. It screams, “Populate me with the information you know, so that I may help you share it and be valuable!” It’s a slide begging for our title and our bullets.

Off we go, pouring countless hours into a deck, ensuring our bullets are formatted and our fonts are legible. Yet research by Forbes tells us bullets are the least effective way to communicate on a slide. The words that would be more effective coming from our mouths end up on slides, and we put our audiences in the position to read along.

What kind of damage are we doing?

Back to the lizard-brain human analogy for a minute: Imagine picking up a bow & arrow without proper training on how to use it. Just because we’ve been lucky in the past doesn’t guarantee a future kill. Maybe that’s why, according to Prezi, 46% of our coworkers report zoning out during their colleagues’ presentations, turning primarily to their smartphones for entertainment. FORTY. SIX. PERCENT. Can you imagine if your last initiative had 46% more buy-in? What kind of return on your time would 46% less distraction yield?

Cognitive psychologists have identified two ways we consume information: There’s serial processing, which involves working through one morsel of information at a time; and parallel processing – basically multitasking through similar streams of data. Luckily, the human brain is capable of both, but studies have shown that asking an audience to read a message while listening to a similar one drastically reduces the message’s recall. In other words, by reading our bullets aloud, we are diluting our message.

How important is our message? That depends. Do we believe we’re only as valuable as the information we share?

How could we possibly break this cycle? 

Good news: 70% of presenters say they’d like to improve (Prezi). Even better news: There are so many ways to improve. New skills to apply, new experiments to attempt, new media to utilize, new methods to entertain. At Campfire, we’re driven to show our clients as many better ways as possible and give them more “weapons” when it’s time to present. We’ve created a method, Persuasion Design, that when applied, captures the attention of audiences, delivers meaningful content and taps into the unique strengths of the presenter. We’ll gladly discuss in more detail, but in the meantime, here are a few ideas to implement immediately:

If we must make slides, we will make images, not bullets.

According to the Picture Superiority Effect, photos and other picture devices convey concepts more effectively than those in text form.

We will organize our information with structure.

Familiar storytelling formats and simple outlines can dramatically increase recall.

We will skip the deck altogether.

If we’re ready for a bolder, more disruptive gesture, we might draw salient points on the whiteboard as we speak, or create an interactive, sensory and/or tactile experience for the audience. For some alternative media ideas, click here.

If you or someone you know struggles with deck addiction, and is ready to treat presentations with the respect they deserve, please don’t wait. Put down the deck and get in touch.