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The curse of PowerPoint

I'll give you the moral of this little rant first: Smart people can do really dumb stuff, and one of the dumbest is the way they use PowerPoint in presentations. Let me show you what I mean.

I recently ran across an editing test from a large consulting firm that teaches businesses how to manage complex projects. The test consists of editing a few pages of an instruction manual used by the firm's teachers.

The pages included in the test are designed to show instructors how to introduce the topics that the course will cover. Each page depicts a PowerPoint slide at the top with instructions beneath for instructors to follow in talking over the slide.

For example, one slide is headed "Key elements of complex systems." Below that are seven bullet points naming the main topics to be covered in slides to come:

The instructor is to spend seven minutes on this slide. He is to tell you, for example, that agents are "the components of the systems present in the complex situation." Attractors are "any influences that guide or drive the behavior of an agent or agents." Emergence, you will be delighted to learn, means that "as the agents experiment with various ways of interacting, new rules emerge at a tactical level."

Comatose yet?

This slide is decorated with a photograph of a tangle of multicolored electrical wires against a background that looks like the core of an automobile radiator. What this picture has to do with the seven bullet points and how it might inform an audience subjected to this presentation, God only knows.

Let's drill down one more excruciating level. The next slide elaborates on the first of the seven bullet points: "Agents and agent behavior." Under that heading, you are given another bullet list:

The instructor is instructed to talk over each of these points, no doubt while minds wander anyplace that will deliver them from this abuse.

Imagine enrolling in this course. You want to learn how to use complexity science to manage complex projects, territory that is mostly new to you. Look at the blizzard of bullet points above and the "explanations" I quoted. How helpful would this be in giving you a practical grasp of this subject? An hour after the session, how much of this stuff do you think you'd remember?

If you want some informed, critical answers to such questions, get a copy of Edward Tufte's 32-page monograph The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint (you can order a copy here). In it Tufte discusses two questions: What is the problem with PowerPoint? And how can we improve our presentations? Here's a sample:

For the na´ve, bullet lists may create the appearance of hard-headed organized thought. But in the reality of day-to-day practice, the PP cognitive style is faux-analytical. A study in the Harvard Business Review found generic, superficial, simplistic thinking in the bullet lists widely used in business planning and corporate strategy. What the authors are saying here, in the Review's earnestly diplomatic language, is that bullet outlines can make us stupid:
In every company we know, planning follows the standard form of the bullet outline.... [But] bullet lists encourage us to be lazy in three specific and related ways.

Bullet lists are typically too generic. They offer a series of things to do that could apply to any business....

Bullets leave critical relationships unspecified. Lists can communicate only three logical relationships: sequence (first to last in time); priority (least to most important or vice versa); or simple membership in a set (these items relate to one another in some way, but the nature of that relationship remains unstated). And a list can show only one of those relationships at a time.

Tufte is not wholly opposed to PowerPoint. He offers constructive suggestions for choosing and using PowerPoint. But after studying "several thousand slides, five case studies, and extensive quantitative comparisons between PowerPoint and other methods of communicating information," he concludes that PowerPoint "has a distinctive, definite, well-enforced, and widely practiced cognitive style that is contrary to serious thinking." In sum, "some methods of presentation are better than others. And PowerPoint is rarely a good method" because it "is entirely presenter-oriented, and not audience-oriented, not content-oriented."

I wholeheartedly agree.


"PowerPoint is evil" - Edward Tufte
"Does PowerPoint make you stupid?" - Tad Simons
"The Level of Discourse Continues to Slide" - John Schwartz
"PowerPoint: Killer App?" - Ruth Marcus
"Order a PowerPoint stand-down" - Capt. E. Tyler Wooldridge III (Ret.)
"How Power-Point is like Melvin" - Em C. Pea
The Gettysburg Address in PowerPoint
PowerPoint Pogue's Homepage
Stop your presentation before it kills again!

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