More Powerpoint Bashing

Was touring Edward Tufte’s website the other day and found a rant against Microsoft Powerpoint. As sort of a fan of Tufte but also Powerpoint, I had to check it out.

His primary complaints seemed to boil down to three things, which don’t really seem to be (completely) Powerpoint’s fault.

  • Because it is there, people overuse the built-in templates for bullets, hierarchy, etc. They create too many slides of text statements, indented indefinitely which all eventually blur together. 
  • It encourages people to think in “small frame” snapshots. They pop page after page of info on the screen without maintaining a story line. Even worse, there are things that can be made clearer by comparing them on the same page, rather than putting them on two consecutive pages, but Powerpoint discourages doing that.
  • It encourages people to adopt a sales-like tone…turning informational reports into something more like a persuasive pitch document.

(Tufte has some great lines by the way…for example “The rigid slide-by-slide hierarchies, indifferent to content, slice and dice the evidence into arbitrary compartments, producing an anti-narrative with choppy continuity.” Check out the original. Or, an article by Tufte that appeared in the September 2003 issue of  Wired.)

Wait though…is it really Powerpoint’s fault? Or is it the author’s fault? Or maybe it is the fault of the business environment. Powerpoint has become a standard. In their haste to keep up, often people don’t spend much time thinking about their document and message — instead, they just do the first thing they think of. Or, they don’t really value the benefits of developing a good presentation over a generic one. Or, they don’t really know what a good presentation or document could look like. (Maybe Powerpoint has some influence/blame there…)

Of course, people in business today will always complain about having to read a lengthy document. And, people who write documents know that “nobody reads anything” so they often limit their information to distilled formats, like bullets.  Or, they assume their Powerpoint is just support for the talking they intent to provide along with it. They believe they can carry the narrative between slides and fill in the gaps between cryptic statements and bullets.

OK, plenty of blame to go around. But what can you do about it?

At PRH Consulting, we tend to use Powerpoint as we would blank paper. You are stuck with a page view, true, but you would be with paper also. (In fact, one of the downsides of the Google Docs’ competing presentation tool is that you can’t make the page any size you want…you are stuck with letter size.)

We have been known to create presentations in Powerpoint but also to use Powerpoint for documents and large-format drawings. In fact, our approach to building content frequently attempts to straddle the world of group-presentation and individual reading…for much of our training, we like to give the user an option to present it in a group setting, use it in a small-group coaching setting, and even as a self-study document. It isn’t easy but it is very possible to do this effectively. The key is knowing the story you are trying to tell, then putting only that information on the page in whatever format does it the best (including a table of numbers, if appropriate…everything doesn’t have to be a graph). Miscellaneous side points, tips, and “watch-for’s” are added using icons or call-outs to keep them out of the way of the main point but still available where they make the most sense.

So, you don’t have to use the built-in outline hierarchies…we often don’t. When we do, we will typically customize the master so it doesn’t have huge distracting indents or multiple types of fonts or bullets that can also be unhelpful clutter.

We use tables alot to compare information or concepts — often in training, you may initially think you want people to understand concept A and concept B but then figure out that you really need them to be able to tell the difference between A and B…if that is the case, you need to be able to put A and B side-by-side to compare them.

Organization of a large presentation or document in Powerpoint can be tricky — a mind-numbing succession of slides is as monotonous as windshield wipers. But you can create slides with a different/recognizable format/color to mark transitions between sections. And we’ve all seen the menu or miniature flow diagram showing “you are here” on every page…it can be overused or pointless (for example, if it is so small you don’t know what it is telling you) but can also be used effectively.

Unfortunately, we are guilty of making questionable assumptions at times. For instance, we have been known to force clip art relating to the message into a slide every now and then…sometimes it is OK but occasionally it probably isn’t necessary. Yes, sometimes it is there only because it felt like there wasn’t enough “visual interest.”

Ultimately, it seemed that Tufte’s message was to “respect your audience.” Don’t waste their time. In our business, we would say that you should have people apply the information you are giving them in a job-like situation. Don’t do data dumps. Don’t present information that you know the audience will not remember later. (As a test, think about the last presentation you attended. Now, try to remember one slide…can you? If it was a good presentation, you may be able to remember the main message and some of the stories/anecdotes used for illustration…but probably not specific bullet points.)

But some “dumbing-down” may be unavoidable. Many writers are lamenting the negative impact on attention span that our immediate communication technology is causing. It is so easy to fax, text, IM, email, etc. that we have lost the patience and ability to actually focus on and read something more in-depth. In fact, in many cases, politicians do most of their debating by flinging buzzwords and talking points around and then just repeating the ones that seem to resonate as opposed to providing reasoned arguments. Maybe we have to become smarter people in order to end world domination by Powerpoint.


Full disclosure: At PRH Consulting, Powerpoint is our tool of choice for as much as possible. To us, it is equivalent to a blank sheet of paper but easier to use and more widely available than nother drawing programs so, if we hand it off to a client, they have the capability to modify it later.

For another counterpoint, see David Byrne’s post (yes, that David Byrne). Although, I’m not sure he really helps the case for Powerpoint…my knucklehead’s take on his message is that what makes Powerpoint cool is it’s lameness. Not what you’re usually looking for in an advocate but, what the heck…it’s David Byrne…you have to read it!

For more information on how technology is affecting our brains, you could check out “The New Brain” by Richard Resniak, MD.

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