by: Linné Pullar
Often, I come across companies that use Microsoft® PowerPoint® as a documentation tool. This can occur even when there are other, more powerful word processing tools available. Sometimes PowerPoint is mandated, either formally or informally, as the documentation tool that everyone at the company must use.
For experienced technical writers, using PowerPoint as a documentation tool can make them want to shut down their computer and head out the door. Before taking drastic action, let’s explore three ways you can determine whether PowerPoint is the right documentation tool to use in any situation.
- Gather Information About Current Standards. If you don’t understand why you are using PowerPoint to create documentation instead of a word processing tool, get more information. Meet with the manager (decision-maker) and have an open dialog around the topic of tools and productivity. Keep an open mind because there may be some rationale for using PowerPoint that is not obvious.PowerPoint has come a long way over the years, including being able to export slides as Web pages or as videos. While it is not a standard word processor, nor a publication tool, there are many reasons why an organization may require PowerPoint as their preferred documentation tool. Here are several good reasons:
- Collaboration. Collaboration with other departments, reviewers or users of the documentation. Creating, updating, and sharing of documents by multiple groups such as marketing, sales and customer service is easier if one tool is used by everyone.
- Enterprise. Deployment of one tool across the company is economical and compatible for everyone to use.
- Use. If the same information will be used in different ways, it may be easier and more reliable to maintain one PowerPoint file. This will ensure that all users have the latest content, whether they are using the content as a reference guide, a training tool, or giving a presentation, and whether the documentation is printed out or read online.
- Simplicity. For many people (especially those who aren’t professional writers), PowerPoint is easy to learn and use while providing for many different uses.
- Familiarity. The manager, decision-maker and most users may be more familiar with PowerPoint than with word processing tools. If their role requires giving presentations, they may be more comfortable using PowerPoint and less knowledgeable with word processors or other tools.
- Ask for Input From All Participants. Talk with the people using PowerPoint to clarify their needs. Start with a list of goals for the documentation, then a list of features needed to produce it. Here are the types of questions to ask to get this input.
- Goals. What is the purpose of the documentation? How will you know you have succeeded?
- Audience. Who is the audience for the documentation? How does that audience best use the content of the documentation?
- Sharing and Distribution. How many different people work on the document? How will you share the content? How will you deliver the content? What methods will be used to distribute the content? Will it be posted on a local network, published on website, distributed on other media such as a CD or DVD, or printed?
- Timeliness. How often will you update the documentation? How often will users of the documentation need to access it?
- Automation. Will you need automation of some features such as outlining, chapters, multi-level headings, table of contents, table of figures, indexing, cross-referencing, captions, headers/footers, and page numbering?
- Contributors and Reviewers. How will you manage the review process? Are there both internal and external users? Do you need features automated to improve ease of use and productivity?
- Examine the Pros and Cons. While it is easy to digress into a discussion of which is the “best” documentation tool, the best tool depends on many factors, including tool features, the needs of the organization, budget, training in the use of the tool, and many other considerations.
Determine the features you require for your documentation and which product best supports those needs. Many features now available in PowerPoint provide effectively for document creation. Here are a few features to give you ideas to begin your own analysis.
- Modular documentation created in units that can be used and distributed in different ways.
- Visuals can be used in slide presentations and online distribution formats are easy for anyone to create.
- Multiple pages (or authors) of notes per slide, facilitating different uses of the content.
- Most commonly used font and paragraph formatting in an easy to use interface.
Some advanced word processing features you need may be unavailable in PowerPoint. These features may require a hybrid solution such as exporting the content to and from Word.
- Automation of conventional book elements (such as table of contents and indexing.)
- Powerful word processing features such as Styles and Templates.
- Multi-level outlining or collapsible headings.
After you’ve analyzed the current standards, discussed the needs with all participants, and listed all the pros and cons, you may agree that PowerPoint is the best tool in the current situation. But if you don’t agree that your organization is using the best tool, now you have the information you need to develop a business case for your recommendation.