Office employee gives a Powerpoint presentation to colleagues

Employees who want to influence company strategy should help to design the firm’s PowerPoint presentations, new research shows.

Experts found those who designed and edited the slides strongly influenced the direction a company’s strategy took.

Professor Sotirios Paroutis and Professor Loizos Heracleous, from Warwick Business School in the UK, and Dr Eric Knight, from the University of Sydney Business School in Australia, conducted the study to understand how strategists employ visual information in PowerPoint slides and its effects.

Their findings were published in the paper, The power of PowerPoint : a visual perspective on meaning making in strategy, in the Strategic Management Journal.

Professor Paroutis said: “The ‘power’ of PowerPoint is not about the bullet points or other visuals managers use in their slides, but about the strategic insights and discussions their slides generate.

“Opening up those discussions is as important as the design of the visuals itself.

“Our research highlights how PowerPoint slides, as a critical strategic tool, are used to create strategy. Slides are not an end product, but a tool to stimulate engagement and wider discussion.

“Since the power is in the eye of the slide creator, practitioners should consider: by whom, for whom and how these slides are created.

“Starting with a draft pack of slides and using a wider group of managers to develop these would be a good approach for strategists designing a more open strategy process in their firms.”

Researchers reviewed PowerPoint presentations arising from a strategy consulting firm’s interventions at varying stages of their development.

They used a semiotic analysis of signs, interpretations, and meetings to understand the interplay between the visuals used in slides, the subsequent discussions, and how issues were framed.

Unlocking this puzzle can provide a more holistic explanation of how those involved in strategy decipher visual information and how related conversations influence strategy adoption and change.

Professor Paroutis said: “There is a growing body of research focused on examining the role and impact of tools used by strategists, but the precise role of visuals as tools remains a black box.

“Unpacking how strategy is visually made and executed is an exciting new frontier in strategic management research.

“With the growing use of visualisations, big data analytics, and PowerPoint presentations embedded in strategy analysis and communications; the way managers present their strategies really matters.”

The authors identified three visual mechanisms:

  • Depiction visuals refer to pictorial representations of strategy
  • Juxtaposition visuals provide new logical linkages between previously disconnected aspects of strategy.
  • Salient visuals offer nuanced ways to prioritize strategic agendas by adding weight to key pieces of information.

Each visual mechanism influences the visibility of particular strategic ideas by prompting and framing these ideas through the conversations visuals simulate.

As participants react to visuals, they exhibit interpretations of the strategy that both crystallises what was shown on the slides and uncovers important aspects that are not explicit in the visuals. This enables a better understanding of the emergent strategy or “strategic resonance”.

Strategists’ use of multiple visual mechanisms evolved with the successive development of slides over time. Shifting the emphasis of visual mechanisms influenced the evolving strategy formation.

Sotirios Paroutis is Professor of Strategic Management and Head of the Strategy and International Business Group at Warwick Business School.

Loizos Heracleous is Professor of Strategy at Warwick Business School