Don’t Hate PowerPoint; Hate the PowerPointers

Even though I try hard to avoid meetings in general, and business meetings in particular, I have sat through my share of PowerPoint presentations. In general, I hate them.

There are at least two big problems with PowerPoint presentations. The first is that the speaker, because he’s got the visual crutch of the slide show, doesn’t work very hard to communicate well with his actual words. If the slides are really good, you can get away with this — but then you start wondering why the guy didn’t just send you his slides and leave you alone.

The second problem is that PowerPoint seems to encourage a kind of bullet-point thinking that’s just not that interesting, and in its reductiveness can be downright dangerous. That, at least, is the argument of Edward Tufte, the visual-data guru who hates PowerPoint so much that he wrote a monograph about its failings.

I was reminded of all this today while reading Lee Gomes‘s column in today’s Wall Street Journal. PowerPoint, it so happens, has just turned 20 years old, and Gomes’s piece swiftly covers a lot of interesting ground: its origins as a Mac program (which I didn’t know), its rapid sale to Microsoft for $14 million, and Tufte’s objections to how PowerPoint has come to be used.

But by far the best part of the column is the reflections of Robert Gaskins and Dennis Austin, the creators of PowerPoint. To a large degree, they share the frustration of everyone like me and Tufte about how PowerPoint has come to be used: “It’s just like the printing press,” Austin tells Gomes. “It enabled all sorts of garbage to be printed.” As Gomes writes, Austin and Gaskins also like “telling the joke that the best way to paralyze an opposition army is to ship it PowerPoint and, thus, contaminate its decision making, something some analysts say has happened at the Pentagon.”

FWIW, I recently saw a great PowerPoint presentation, given by the writer Josh Kilmer-Purcell at this Google conference. It can be done. Spurred on by today’s Gomes piece, I vow to adopt a new outlook: don’t hate PowerPoint; hate the PowerPointers.


vought

I have to disagree with the agnosticism regarding the tool; PowerPoint encourages users to develop mind-numbing presentations. Just take a look at the templates, which are used for 95% of the grating, cookie-cutter presentations you wish you'd never been to.

Get down to an Apple store and play with a copy of Keynote, Apple's presentation software. While functionally very similar to PowerPoint, it manages to guide users into more stimulating presentations. Of course the ultimate effectiveness of any presentation is up to the designer and presenter, but there's no reason the software should encourage lazy habits.

(Do what I do; use Keynote to create a presentation and save it as a PowerPoint preso - then get mobbed after the presentation by people wanting to know how I'd gotten PowerPoint to "look so good".)

EmilyAnabel

Confusingly, "PowerPoint" has become a generic term for computer slide presentations, even those developed with better tools. I use the mathematical typsetting software LaTeX (Beamer) for my presentations and as a Microsoft-free person, it's always funny (and sad) to get complimented on my excellent use of PowerPoint after giving a talk.

There are some excellent computer slide presentations, developed with a variety of tools. There was an engaging TEDtalk on the direction of the Pentagon by Thomas Barnett, at http://blog.ted.com/2007/06/thomas_barnetts.php which actually kept me riveted for the full 20 minutes and had good, non-disruptive use of slides.

jourman2

On a google/powerpoint note, Google apparently just bought an "online slide presentation" company. It'll be interesting to see how they present it to the public. http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2007/06/more-sharing.html

metin

I once gave a 'Keynote' presentation. The 10 or so slides were all the same.

But all of the slides were blank!

Aside from the 'blank' looks from the audience (especially when I told them I didn't even know you can duplicate slides - and that I had to create each one individually,) needless to say I got their attention. They actually listened to my words instead of reading them.

frankenduf

this posting could have been presented better- eg:
POWERPOINT
- crutch v. redundant
- bullett point reduct
- Gome column
- counterexample

Vincent Clement

Another problem with using PowerPoint is that many managers like to use the slides as handouts. Therefore, they try to cram as much as possible onto the slide. My manager is totally guilty of this. She cannot grasp that a handout and a visual presentation should be treated as separate items.

aperlow

Checkout www.presentationzen.com for great presentation examples (and really bad ones too).

egretman

Maybe your real complaint is with boring people. Maybe it doesn't have anything to do with power point. Maybe when we force boring people to attend boring meetings and give presentations on boring subjects, it is just boring.

Simple as that.

leopiccioli

I completely agree with the idea that PPT is helping people being dumber. My last couple presentations, I did them without any supporting materials. In fact, I prepared the materials to have a story line, but did not use them, just shared them later with the audience (at my blog).
I think this is a good idea to improve presentation skills and focus on the audience instead of on the software you are using.

shareski

I've done a lot of work with people on using this effectively....this video may help.

Ike Pigott

Have you ever seen the Gettysburg Address as a Powerpoint?

robneville73

www.presentationzen.com is a very good resource. I also really like the book Beyond Bullet Points (oddly published by Microsoft themselves) which I talk about here http://www.robneville.net/software/7-things-guaranteed-to-kill-your-powerpoint-presentations/2007/06/

buster

i'd love to see a josh's powerpoint...

Kirilius

I have been in IT industry for a good part of my life so here is what my experience tells me: every piece of software is built for a purpose and if people are using it for some other purpose, it's their fault.

PowerPoint is a tool for creating presentations. The idea of a presentation is to "present" something to the audience. Most of the time the intention is to have a one-way communication: from the presenter to the audience. PowerPoint facilitates that type of communication. However, because it has some very easy-to-use drawing features, people are tempted to use it as a replacement for the white board. That is a mistake, of course, but the problem is not with the software.

If a meeting is intended to be a brainstorming session, where creative thinking and new ideas have to be encouraged, then there are other tools. The simplest one being the good old white board ;-) I personally like MindManager very much for the way it allows you to break down ideas and create network-style pictures to visualize them. Visio also has a similar functionality.

Here are some other examples of different software products that are commonly used for something that was not their primary purpose:
- Use PhotoShop to resize pictures and create web-galleries only (it's like trying to kill a mosquito with a ballistic missile)
- Use Excel to store enterprise-wide data and draw executive reports from it
- Use the email as a storage for important documents
...

The problem again is with the users. I can talk a lot about software-user's typical behavior (and even create a PPT presentation about it) but the gist of it is that:
* Users are lazy and not willing to learn and try new tools (they don't see a reason to have two different tools that have similar functionality)
* Users are quick to learn how to do a series of tasks with some particular product. On the other hand it is very difficult for them to "unlearn" it if something in the environment changes (a new business process or software product is introduced)
* Users easily establish stereotype associations between a task that they need to perform and the tool they use to accomplish it. This way the concept of a presentation (or creating slides and diagrams) is immediately associated with the first tool that the user ever saw (usually that's PowerPoint).

Of course when I say "users", I don't exclude myself or anybody else from the set ;-)

So I agree with the original post that the fault is not in the software but in those who are using it improperly.

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simonleyland

Powerpoint is a poor presenter's comfort blanket. What they don't realise is that it either makes them look stupid and dull or distracts the audience from the message he/she is trying to give.

jclatimer

I am concerned about elementary schools using powerpoint as a tool. While the idea of multimedia reports is interesting, writing correctly is a more valuable skill to teach.

htb

#6: Vincent, about your boss who crams everything onto slides: Does she then print out hard copies in "note" format, and then wonder why "no one is paying attention," where paying attention means "taking handwritten notes" -- even though all of the information is already pre-printed on the page?

shareski

Simonleyland,

PPT when used properly is more than a comfort blanket. Presentation can be more than audio. The best ones appeal to multi-sensory learners. It's a tool that has been used poorly but when done well is effective.

jclatimer,

Again, an effective ppt is based on a good presentation that is usually written out and thus includes a strong written component. I would disagree with you that writing is more valuable. Students will need to be able to create multimedia in an every changing society based on visual content.

Timberry

Fascinating discussion I can't resist joining in from a somewhat special point of view, software author and publisher. It's crazy to blame the tool for its users. The tool is trying to be as inclusive as possible. It wants to allow you and I to do great presentations and at the same time allow the detail-oriented corporate word nerd to put as much CYA crap as he or she possibly can. The tool wants to do whatever the users want to do with it, holding flexibility and power as the highest value.

Here's a challenge: those of you who blame the tool come up with something that forces people to do "good" presentations only. See how many people buy it.

I've been doing software for 24 years now and I still don't want the software to tell me what to do; I want to tell it what to do.

It's bad enough that Microsoft Word questions me everytime I start a sentence with "But," or leave a verb out because I want to be pithy. Jeez!

Tim Berry

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Jim Miles

"the speaker, because he's got the visual crutch of the slide show, doesn't work very hard to communicate well with his actual words"

This assumption that the Powerpoint incompetent is male certainly tallies with my experience.