Every time I stumble across process or procedure documentation in the form of PowerPoint slides in a customer organization, it hurts me because I don’t like to see organizations fail.
The use of PowerPoint, of slides in general, for the purpose of documenting something is rampant, dominating and above all paralyzing companies in all industries.
Why this is so and how it can be done better, that is the topic of this text.
Table of contents
- A presentation is a presentation is a presentation
- A documentation is a documentation is a documentation
- PowerPoint files fly around (just like PDFs)
- PowerPoint files are large and have no direct links (just like PDFs)
- PowerPoint invites you to paint syntax-free graphics
- Document in the default location
- Cases where PowerPoint documentation is beneficial
- Good for kittens
A presentation is a presentation is a presentation
The slide-oriented programs and their file formats, like PowerPoint, but just as LibreOffice, are designed to visually accompany a presentation. The central idea of slides is always that someone speaks and uses slides to underline what is being said. That’s why they are called PowerPoint, to give more power to the point the speaker is making.
Despite all the criticism of the strict linearity of PowerPoint, it is still an excellent medium to support lectures, presentations and speeches in front of an audience with visual means if necessary. Sometimes a flipchart or blackboard would do the job, and often it is even stronger without any visual aids, but just with free speech.
But if PowerPoint, then just to present.
If I am presenting a process or a method, a procedure, then the question arises whether it would not be better to work out a set of slides in PowerPoint.
As already mentioned in “Thinking in slides vs. document vs. sketch: My concept does not come from PowerPoint” , a set of slides has very specific purposes for me, and therefore not others.
A documentation is a documentation is a documentation
A common approach in many organisations is: a few slides with text, boxes and arrows painted on them, and it is clear to everyone involved how things are supposed to work.
It’s worth checking out what documentation, more precisely technical documentation, actually is. Wikipedia for example  says: “A technical documentation […] comprises all information products that describe a technical product and guide its use, maintenance or repair. It prepares the information systematically and structures it in such a way that the respective purpose is completely fulfilled.”
What technical documentation really means is – thanks to German thoroughness – a guideline of the Association of German Engineers (VDI) in several parts: –
Sheet 4 “Documentation process, planning, layout, creation”  gives some guidelines on what I should pay attention to when documenting: “document-based and product-based structuring, visualisation means, publication processes and media, file and exchange formats.”
Ultimately, this means that documentation should be easily accessible, and every user should be able to easily recognize whether he or she has the latest version of the documentation in front of him or her, and if necessary, suggest changes or enter them by themselves.
PowerPoint files fly around (just like PDFs)
Presentation files rarely reside statically where they belong. Many people who document in PowerPoint also tend to send these files repeatedly by e-mail to colleagues and contractors in need.
Sending these files makes any attempt of clean versioning and filing (see also ) obsolete, if not very difficult.
This means that time is lost when colleagues have to discuss whether they have the latest version of a documentation, where they often don’t know (anymore) where the original, valid storage location is.
It takes more time to adjust the procedure when different people unknowingly use different versions of a document.
There is a simple and effective remedy: Don’t use PowerPoint for documentation!
PowerPoint files are large and have no direct links (just like PDFs)
A PowerPoint file in which a complete process is documented, possibly with graphics, is large, so it takes a while each time it is opened until it is loaded and can be inspected.
Furthermore, PowerPoint does not generally allow you to pass on a link to exactly one specific page, unless you consistently use a OneDrive/SharePoint environment . And as soon as the file is distributed by e-mail, of course, the mechanism no longer works.
So in case of doubt I’m always busy to switch to the right page. Of course, all this also applies to PDF files generated from PowerPoint. It is technically possible, but in practice it is complicated and hardly ever used.
Most people working in the office have a browser window open all day anyway, because all kinds of tasks require some kind of web application. So the solution is: The documentation must also be available in the browser.
PowerPoint invites you to paint syntax-free graphics
A picture is worth a thousand words, as the saying goes. True, but a picture not only says more than a thousand words, it often leaves more than a thousand questions unanswered. This is especially true for graphics that have been just quickly created to visualize processes. What exactly does the branching mean here? What does the author want to tell me with the color, with the shape of this box? What do the thin arrows mean compared to the thick arrows?
The drawing tools in PowerPoint are manifold, but without a common understanding of the syntax and semantics of the elements of the drawing, I have seen such a graphic raise more questions than it could answer.
The solution: Use a standardized modeling syntax, in a description language that is suitable for it. Suitable graphical process descriptions I saw for example in the Business Process Model Notation (BPMN, according to ) or in UML activity diagrams. The main thing is a notation, where the syntax itself does not have to be discussed anymore, but only its correct application and especially the content of the graphic.
Now it is also possible to create a standard syntax-compliant drawing in PowerPoint, but in my experience the probability of this happening is higher when drawing outside PowerPoint.
If you do not know what to start with, then use draw.io 
Document in the default location
Well, how and where am I supposed to document?
Very simple: on the intranet. If you don’t have one in your organisation, you need one. Some place where colleagues and possibly also partner organisations can simply look it up and above all search for it.
Being able to search documentation easily in full text is one of the most important features, and that is why purely graphical documentation is often not useful, because it is difficult to find content there.
- If you do not yet have a given location for documentation, then create a new page for your process where people look.
- Give the page the name of the process and write documentation or process description behind it. And then you write.
- structure the documentation so that people can easily find their way around. Use subheadings and bold print where appropriate.
- make sure that the writing is translation-oriented  and easy to understand .
- add graphics only in those places where they provide real added value. Keep the graphics simple.
- publish the documentation page sooner rather than later, so that you can quickly get feedback as to whether what you have written is already helpful and accurate and where there are still gaps or corrections are necessary. Early documentation is always better than none at all.
- write down whether the documentation should be changed by anyone, or whether you should be contacted with change requests. It is best to enable the comment function and ask to use it exclusively. This keeps everything that is annotated about the process together and your mailbox gets cleaner.
Maybe you have a more heavyweight way of recording documentation in your company. This may get on your nerves at times, but even this is better than the alternative. If you find that the way documentation is captured in this system is not really easy to read and use, then please bear with me for some more paragraphs..
Cases where PowerPoint documentation is beneficial
This is going to be hard for you now, if you have documented a lot with PowerPoint so far.
Case 1: You are currently creating documentation for a procedure and have nothing yet.
Create a proper documentation on the intranet as described above. A page in your intranet system, no matter if Confluence, SharePoint, WordPress or any other system is better suited than PowerPoint.
Write well and understandably, and specifically use standard-compliant diagrams.
Case 2: You already have documentation on the intranet and want to talk about it now.
In this case you do not need a PowerPoint presentation, because the documentation is already directly usable. You cannot add anything useful to a good documentation by casting it in PowerPoint.
If you feel that your documentation on the intranet is not useful and does not serve as a basis for verbally explaining the process to someone, then you are improving the documentation and not creating an alternative reality.
Good for kittens
I don’t like cats, but the “every time you do X, a kitten dies” meme suits me very well, because it cuts to the point quickly.
Always document where people would look anyway, and use the most natural format for that space. Graphics are bendable and can lack precision if the syntax is poorly chosen. Therefore, you should always include textual information about what you want to say.
Many people do not like to document, but even fewer people like to deal with the consequences of poor and inconsistent documentation. Be the positive force! Because if the process you have cooked up is more accessible, and better described, and closer to reality, then you yourself will benefit.
How do you do that?
Translated with DeepL Translator (free version)
-  J. Schlosser, „Denken in Folien vs. Dokument vs. Skizze: Mein Konzept kommt nicht aus PowerPoint“, Dr. Joachim Schlosser, Apr. 10, 2018.
-  „Technical documentation“, Wikipedia. Sep. 16, 2019.
-  VDI 4500 Blatt 1 – Technical Documentation – Definitions and legal basics.
-  VDI 4500 Part 4 – Technical Documentation – Documentation process, planning, layout, creation.
-  VDI 4500 Blatt 5 – Technical Documentation – Efficient Documentation.
-  J. Schlosser, „Every time you version by filename, a kitten dies – Implicit Versions in Confluence, OneDrive, SharePoint, Dropbox“, Dr. Joachim Schlosser, July 16, 2019.
-  „Share a link to a specific slide“. Microsoft.
-  A.-W. Scheer, Business process engineering: reference models for industrial enterprises, 2nd, completely rev. and enl. ed Aufl. Berlin ; New York: Springer-Verlag, 1994.
-  „Diagram Software and Flowchart Maker“. draw.io.
-  „Übersetzungsgerechtes Schreiben“, Wikipedia. Apr. 26, 2018.
-  „Hamburger Verständlichkeitskonzept“, Wikipedia. Apr. 28, 2020.