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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.