Dennis Robert Austin, who died earlier this month, was famous – or infamous, depending on your viewpoint – for creating PowerPoint. Since its debut in 1987, the system has contrived to combine ubiquity with disdain – with even those who lament its banality succumbing to its ease of use.
Occasionally, the critique has taken on a societal significance; at a conference in 2010 a four-star US general laid into the burgeoning use of PowerPoint in the military with the assertion that “it makes us look stupid”. This is like blaming Tim Berners-Lee for the sidebar of shame. The medium is not the message.
That said, there is a telling characteristic of PowerPoint that goes beyond its invitation to pepper bullet points like confetti, one that could have consequences for our commercial endeavours. It is replicability.
A PowerPoint slide is easily lifted from one presentation and used in another. That wasn’t how it worked when we used to cart around slide carousels and overhead projectors to get our points across. The assembled recipients might get a print-out at the end but that was it. They couldn’t just lift and steal. But now, with the ‘deck’ openly shared among the viewing crowd, they can.
So, a pithy quote, a clever graphic, a biting insight will be noted, lifted, maybe adapted to reflect the new user’s preferred template, but otherwise replicated wholesale. It gets a life of its own, showing up in new guises in distant places, where it gets seized and used all over again – a meme forever on the move.
Marketing’s urban myths
Exactly what gets grabbed and replicated will often come down to fashion. In our own little world of marketing, we’ve seen various manifestations that reflected the concerns of the times or the debates most passionately raging in corporate corridors.
Loyalty versus penetration is an example. Most of us will have seen that chart that says it costs five times more to recruit a new customer than to retain an existing one – a single-slide cautionary tale to restrain those whose natural modus is the relentless pursuit of ‘conquest’ business.
If you happen to be thinking about team training, and casting around for ideas, it won’t be long before you come across the slide that depicts the ‘cone of learning’. At the thin end of the cone is ‘reading’, where only 10% of what is studied gets remembered. That moves up through various learning techniques until you reach ‘teach others’, at the thick end, where retention hits 90%.
And whatever your role in our marketing universe, right now you’ll be seeing lots of ready-made replications quoting aspects of behavioural science. That’s where the fashion has taken us.
Experimental results might not replicate in subsequent trials, but the headline findings are catchy enough to get replicated by an uncritical crowd .
There’s that one with the jams, for example, quoting an academic study that dramatises the issue of ‘choice overload’. In this experiment, six jams were offered for trial in one supermarket aisle and 24 in another. More jams were tried from the bigger display, but more were bought from the smaller one. Takeout: too much choice can put people off purchase.
Up to a point these memes are harmless enough, and if a counterintuitive slide makes us sit up and think, that is no bad thing. Trouble is, many in the commercial world are given to unthinking acceptance and are tempted to seize and apply these fragments of digital counsel as though they were carved on tablets of stone.
It is at that point that the memes mentioned above run into a little problem. They are all false.
No data has ever been presented to underpin the loyalty-trumps-acquisition statistic; it appears to be marketing’s equivalent of an urban myth. The cone of learning is a crock of contrivance, with the order conjured up way back in 1933 by a US schoolmaster and the conveniently rounded percentages added on decades later for a magazine article.
The behavioural science one with the jams is both more nuanced and more insidious. It was accurate once, the one time the experiment was undertaken. In that context, on that day, in that particular place on the planet, that was the observed result.
But like countless other behavioural science experiments, there has been no successful repetition of that outcome since.
It has been recognised for years that behavioural science has a replication problem, but in reality, it has two: those experimental results might not replicate in subsequent trials, but the headline findings are catchy enough to get replicated by an uncritical crowd in PowerPoint presentations in perpetuity.
What makes these modern memes more insidious than those that went before is that word ‘science’ – an appendage that tends to be tacked on to disciplines that are, basically, not. When ‘behavioural economics’ morphed into ‘behavioural science’ a decade or so back, it gave the impression that theory had hardened into fact.
It hadn’t. And the moral, as ever, is to be on our guard – all the more so when those lecturing us purport to have scientific authority. We can do that in two ways.
First, we can take a deep breath when presented with something new and surprising on a slide, to request the original source and date, probe the prevailing context and determine whether caveats apply, as they so often do.
Second – and here I speak as one who has been guilty of the crime she describes – we can be a bit less eager to share exciting new theory with the world the minute we discover it. Let’s pause a little, reflect, probe it for inconsistencies, try it out in low-stakes situations, before getting all evangelical.
Because here’s what will happen if we don’t – someday way in the future, when we’ve long since revised our opinions and regretted our initial enthusiasm. Thanks to the credulity of the crowd and the creation bequeathed to the world by Dennis Austin, we’ll find ourselves confronted by somebody presenting our very own erroneous slide, right back at us.