March 21, 2004

PowerPoint sucks!

Posted by shonk at 05:14 PM in Ramblings | TrackBack

While in Bulgaria, I attended a public discussion on new media. Since I don’t speak Bulgarian, I had plenty of time to think about the style of the presentations; specifically, what I see as being the deficiencies of the standard PowerPoint presentation.

I have to admit, my ruminations were spurred by Petya, who turned to me early in the first presentation and whispered “I hate PowerPoint presentations”. I had never really thought about it, but I tend to agree. In his article “PowerPoint is Evil” (be sure to click the link, for the hilarious image, if nothing else), Edward Tufte spells out some reasons why:

In a business setting, a PowerPoint slide typically shows 40 words, which is about eight seconds’ worth of silent reading material. With so little information per slide, many, many slides are needed. Audiences consequently endure a relentless sequentiality, one damn slide after another. When information is stacked in time, it is difficult to understand context and evaluate relationships. Visual reasoning usually works more effectively when relevant information is shown side by side. Often, the more intense the detail, the greater the clarity and understanding. This is especially so for statistical data, where the fundamental analytical act is to make comparisons.

A rather vivid illustration of Tufte’s point is that PowerPoint helped cause the Columbia catastrophe (unfortunately, only an abstract is still available for free).

Back to the public discussion in Sofia for some more examples: a couple of the presenters used PowerPoint (or, in the case of one, AutoPilot) to relatively good effect, but several exhibited the classic defects of substandard PowerPoint presentations: an emphasis on design over content, letting the medium dictate the message, presenting spurious graphics irrelevant to the presentation, etc. My God, a couple of the presentations had literally dozens of screenshots of the same website, which the speaker methodically clicked through in a rather unfortunate attempt to highlight the features of that site. And let’s not even get into the presenter who didn’t even know how to use PowerPoint, or the fact that all but two of the speakers showed their slides in edit mode rather than as a full-screen presentation.

Of course, as The Bofe Blog points out, PowerPoint can be used effectively, but, like Flash intros, I’d have to say the failures outnumber the successes by a pretty large margin.

If you must use PowerPoint, at least keep in mind the following advice from The Bofe Blog:

Visual aids should only be used when they are needed. This sounds like common sense, but you would be surprised how many MS Clipart-ridden presentations with clunky animations are being presented in the world of Higher Education. PowerPoint’s interface makes it very easy to get caught up in the aesthetics of your presentation (theme, clipart, etc) without focusing on the content.

Tufte generalizes this principle:

At a minimum, a presentation format should do no harm. Yet the PowerPoint style routinely disrupts, dominates, and trivializes content. Thus PowerPoint presentations too often resemble a school play -very loud, very slow, and very simple.

The practical conclusions are clear. PowerPoint is a competent slide manager and projector. But rather than supplementing a presentation, it has become a substitute for it. Such misuse ignores the most important rule of speaking: Respect your audience.

So, okay, maybe PowerPoint doesn’t suck, but let’s not try to use it beyond the scope of its capabalities.


Yeah, I know the links are old...I just got around to writing about this.

Posted by: shonk at March 21, 2004 05:19 PM

PowerPoint is most definitely almost entirely worthless in my opinion, unless, as in the case of my biology lecture this semester, the content of the slides consists almost entirely of visual aids, i.e. pictures and diagrams. Otherwise, it just encourages lethargy on the part of both presenter and audience.

Posted by: Curt at March 21, 2004 06:36 PM

oh god! at our "agent academy" we had to sit through days and days of some woman reading ungodly boring information off of powerpoint slides.... i thought i might die. instead i developed a rather burning hatred for powerpoint.

Posted by: jane at March 22, 2004 06:58 PM