We’re familiar with the idea that a picture paints a thousand words. We mostly know about presentations too – at least the kind where someone attempts to prove that ‘two legs + slides’ is superior to just the legs. The undisputed world leading tool for putting together presentations is Microsoft’s PowerPoint, but every tool has potential downsides. Looking at some of the commentary of the impact of PowerPoint on working and social life, many of these downsides might actually be attributes of the tool stood a couple of feet to the left of the projector screen.

In a recent post, we quoted Joe Phelan, evolutionary biologist and University of California at Los Angeles lecturer, who was concerned about what ‘gets lost’ when you use PowerPoint.” The quote came from a longer article, “Is PowerPoint the Devil?” written by Julia Keller and first published in the Chicago Tribune. She initially frames her concern from the viewpoint of a football team coach, in the dressing room at half-time in a match where the team are already a long way behind.

At this point, the coach can:

  • Deliver a rousing, emotion-laced speech exhorting the players to press on in the face of tremendous adversity and daunting odds, or
  • Cue up a PowerPoint presentation on the six keys to victory, including bulleted items such as “Proper blocking and tackling,” “Exhibiting a winning attitude,” “Turning weaknesses into strengths” and “Don’t focus on the scoreboard,” along with a multimedia photo montage of memorable game-winning plays set to the soundtrack of “Rudy.”

Which approach is more likely to send the team back onto the field poised for a comeback? Your answer instantly drop-kicks you into one of two camps:

  • Those who believe in the power of a freewheeling address, full of digressions and personal chemistry, to change hearts and minds most effectively.
  • Those who believe in PowerPoint.

And while the cultural scoreboard may be invisible, this much is indisputable: The PowerPoint people are winning.”

Replete with photo montage and stirring music, it seems wrong to see the PowerPoint option as the reductive one, but – having spent more than I would have preferred of my formative years boiling down an argument to fit on one slide at 24pt – there is something more than a little ‘complete the following presentation in 12 words or less’ about the PowerPoint approach.

And whenever I get that feeling, I also feel like I’m entering one of those now old-fashioned competitions to win a lifetime’s supply of a new flavour of cat food or the chance to have lunch with Bobby Moore. At which point, the text is the only thing that’s starting to get a little snappier.

Joe Phelan is not the only educationalist to have voiced concerns about the approach to topics that PowerPoint tends to encourage. Sherry Turkle is professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self. Although she uses PowerPoint herself (and it’s not a habit I’ve kicked either), she has serious worries about its use as a teaching method:

… what’s fine for a business professional might not be so fine for a child just learning how to think, how to connect ideas. These technologies are changing the way we think. […]

We have a technology that is encouraging us to see things in black and white – but is this a time when we need to see things in black and white? Good and bad? This kind of `three bullets up and down’ isn’t helping us come up with the right kinds of arguments.”

As she went on to say, this can easily lead to a situation in which “A strong presentation is designed to close down debate, rather than open it up.” ‘Death by PowerPoint’ is such a cliché that it now has its own entry at Wikipedia – surely a unique accolade for a software package? – but its entry is about the death of interest or attention of the audience, not of the content.

Most of us – or perhaps that should be ‘most of us who have taken on board audience feedback’ – know the do’s and don’ts of using PowerPoint. Unless the entire audience are visually-impaired, don’t just stand there and read the slides (and if they are all visually impaired, don’t bother with the slides anyway); use graphics; don’t clutter the screen and use legibly large fonts. More importantly, rehearse. But even picking one of a million web resources on using PowerPoint at random – Phonewire’s The New 10 Commandments of Powerpoint (which, remarkably, includes the commandment “Thou shall not bullet”) – I still found myself reading this:

[…] think of it like Twitter: If you can’t get your point across briefly, you need to further narrow your point. “

I gulped a little at that one. I’d only minutes earlier been reading Edward Tufte, an international authority on the visual presentation of information, who has also attacked what he called (in a brief pamphlet devoted to the topic) The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, arguing that it constrains the presenter and reduces complex ideas to bullet points, limiting the opportunities for creative interplay that typify the best learning environments. They may be ideal as note taking guides, but they offer little that benefits comprehension or retention.

If you read the pamphlet, you will learn how Tufte links the Columbia space shuttle disaster to the ubiquity of PowerPoint through the use of over-simplification of instructions to (literally) mission-critical maintenance tasks – a point taken seriously by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, whose report acknowledged his specific research:

The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA.”

(If time is short and a 23-page pamphlet is too long, you can read a version of his essay reduced to a (you guessed it) Powerpoint-style version. Let us know how much you learn).

Tufte is as concerned as Phelan and Turkle about the use of slides to convey learning, as he made clear in an article for Wired magazine, PowerPoint is Evil. (If nothing else, read the online version for the annotated photograph. And then delete your browser history and rework your next ‘presentation’.) Although Microsoft’s targeting of the education market is no different to most IT companies, even the Catholic Church might blanch at the kind of criticism Tufte offers in response to the side-effects of their “get ‘em while they’re young” policy. Arguing that we are being taught from very early ages to compile ‘client pitches and infomercials’ rather than construct a rational argument, he comments that:

Students would be better off if the schools simply closed down on those days and everyone went to the Exploratorium or wrote an illustrated essay explaining something.”

If we want to get an important warning through to both the next generation and the more unthinking of the current one, maybe we should borrow a phrase from a different medium: rap music. I can get it down to five words, which would fit on a slide at 48pt, and provides the opportunity to diversify into t-shirts, mouse-mats, ringtones, lunchboxes and many other lifestyle products with high consumer utility.

  • Guns don’t kill ideas.
  • Bullet-lists do.

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