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December 16, 2003

POWERPOINT HATERS UNITE!....Microsoft just can't catch a break. Via The Talent Show, apparently PowerPoint is now being blamed for the space shuttle crash:

NASA, the board argued, had become too reliant on presenting complex information via PowerPoint, instead of by means of traditional ink-and-paper technical reports. When NASA engineers assessed possible wing damage during the mission, they presented the findings in a confusing PowerPoint slide -- so crammed with nested bullet points and irregular short forms that it was nearly impossible to untangle. "It is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation," the board sternly noted.

That's rough. However, at the risk of offending the legions of PowerPoint haters out there, I'd caution everyone against taking this too far and indulging in dreams of a golden age in which everyone sat down with quill pens and fashioned beautiful, tightly reasoned prose in the business world. Information was presented really badly in the pre-PowerPoint era too. Trust me on this.

As for me, I'm torn. There's no question that PowerPoint can hide a lot of shoddy thinking and often ingrains some bad habits, but on the other hand I'm a PowerPoint guru and would lose some of my competitive advantage if it became less popular. So let me just leave it at this: if you're good at presenting ideas, you'll probably do fine with PowerPoint. If you're not, you won't.

But I will say one thing: PowerPoint is great if you're presenting to a foreign audience that might otherwise miss some of what you say. It's a real boon for us Americans making sales pitches in Asia or Europe.

Oh, and one more thing: Edward Tufte is kind of a cranky guy. I liked his first book, but his subsequent books devolved into a set of really idiosyncratic lectures on How Charts Must Be Drawn. I liked his advice on a broad level, but his obsession with "chart junk" eventually got to the point where there was virtually no chart left. I'd take him with a grain of salt.

Posted by Kevin Drum at December 16, 2003 05:46 PM | TrackBack


It didn't really help Powell did it!

Posted by: Bugs Benny at December 16, 2003 05:50 PM | PERMALINK

Why isn't the story that Hussein had been someones captive for weeks or months getting more play? It explains alot, like his immediate, talkative reaction upon his 'release' from the hole. They had Hussein on ice in a way. Someone was holding him and trying to negotiate his ransom. Yes, its Debka but it makes alot of sense given his condition and initial reaction.

Posted by: jack at December 16, 2003 05:50 PM | PERMALINK

It's my provisional theory that the Boeing ppt was intentionally ambiguous, to reduce the risk of leaks (that ended up occuring) and to compartmentalize the true nature of the present danger while on-orbit.

Two of the most hazardous case analyses were left off the ppt entirely.

The only thing worse than a shuttle coming in like it did would have been a media circus surrounding it for two weeks prior.

Posted by: Troy at December 16, 2003 05:50 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, thank you!

I read Tufte's books, and I was like, "Oh this is neat, kinda fun," but ultimately there wasn't a lot of there there.

But at least he's better than Donald Norman, who's written the single worst "design" book ("The Design of Everyday Things"), one that you should actively avoid reading.

Self-proclaimed design gurus tend to irritate me. Bruce Tognazzini (Mac guru) bugs the heck out of me.

Posted by: Mike Kozlowski at December 16, 2003 05:51 PM | PERMALINK

jack -- spider hole, or imprisoned -- not much of a difference.

I was expecting a nifty vault like in _Three Kings_. THAT would have been news.

Posted by: Troy at December 16, 2003 05:53 PM | PERMALINK

Gotta disagree. Tufte's books can be repetitious, but the examples themselves, both good and bad, are worth the price. I've never seen so much out of the box thinking about design in one place (and I need some of his ideas for my living).

I saw Tufte at a "seminar" (200 attendees, of course) last year, where he mentioned another idea I'd never thought of: the huge improvement of printer resolution relative to the small improvement in screen resolution since the early PC era (say 1983). As a result, he showed us printouts that weren't really feasible before, including a nifty stock price percent-change time series.

Posted by: Andrew Lazarus at December 16, 2003 05:58 PM | PERMALINK

PS Tufte absolutely despises Power Point.

Posted by: Andrew Lazarus at December 16, 2003 05:58 PM | PERMALINK

I wonder if part of the problem was managers who insisted on being informed through a presentation alone, and didn't want to be bothered with actually reading a detailed technical report.

Posted by: Jon H at December 16, 2003 06:07 PM | PERMALINK

Powerpoint is like Flash. It's too much, or it's not enough. (Out of a hundred Flash animations, two or three are the work of people who really need to turn off the computer and sketch like the wind, or step up to serious animation tools, or get a camera and some plasticine and start trying to capture motion a frame at a time. The rest are crap, and the "designers" should be whipped with an extension cord. The whole thing is very sad, which is why my proxy kills Flash silently, along with other harbingers of suckyness.)

Powerpoint gives bad ideas, poorly organized ideas, even self-contradictory ideas the sexy sheen of professionalism and attention to detail, at the cost of practically no effort. It's dead simple to abuse, and it is abused. It got its bad reputation the old-fashioned way: it EARNED it.

There's a trick, though. Someone know knows the subject and is comfortable with the material will interject related material, wander off-slide, and occasionally even have to shuffle around to find his place again. Knowing your subject better than you know Powerpoint is nothing to be ashamed of.

Posted by: Mike D. at December 16, 2003 06:15 PM | PERMALINK

Tufte has some good ideas. I just think he goes overboard with some of them.

And yes, he hates PowerPoint. It's not really surprising in a guy who really cares about design, though. For better or worse, PowerPoint is a tool for the masses, and the masses just aren't going to all be design gurus.

However, I don't want to go overboard either. There really are problems with overreliance on PowerPoint (and Excel!), but there are also some advantages. PowerPoint may not be divine, but neither is it diabolical.

Posted by: Kevin Drum at December 16, 2003 06:16 PM | PERMALINK


yeah -- the next big thing wrt computers is increasing the resolution of the display. It's been this sucky (for Mac users at least) since 1984.

Posted by: Troy at December 16, 2003 06:17 PM | PERMALINK

"A good craftsman never blames his tools."

No offense to Tufte, but he's overly enamored with dense graphical presnetations. He's just blaming the medium instead the user. The user is the one who's making the decision what to display. And resolution has nothing to do with it. Anything you can display on a 8-1/2x11 sheet of paper can be put into a Powerpoint slide. Resolution is not the issue.

But speaking of resolution, have you seen the types of charts that Tufte extols? They are incredibly dense. Sure, they might be an elegant way to present large sums of data in a single chart, but they OBFUSCATE. "What was the POINT?" And that's what at issue.

The NASA scientists put together a confusing table of information. Instead they should have said:


- O-rings get brittle at low temperatures
- Damaged o-rings could cause a major catastrophe
- It's supposed to be cold tomorrow

If you view Tufte's version, it's not much better at conveying the important point: STOP THE LAUNCH.

Posted by: out4blood at December 16, 2003 06:36 PM | PERMALINK

Everyone seems to miss the point of PP bashing. To quote myself, "Powerpoint presentations are an embodiment of a formal managerial hierarchy." If you're trying to push an idea into a hidebound management bureaucracy, you have to either dress it up in Dilbert clothing with PP, or else find you may go unheard. Middle managers are unreceptive to radical ideas, unless they are a wolf in sheeps' clothing. Thus, the radical idea "OMG, the Shuttle is going to disintegrate" must be buried in a Powerpoint presentation, nobody would listen to it otherwise. They didn't listen to it in that PP format either. Oopsie.

To put it another way, there is an old hacker aphorism, "topology is politics." The topology of a network is a political decision. It is easier to exclude people from the management decisionmaking network when the ideas can be buried in bureaucratic crud like Powerpoint.

Kevin, I've never heard you say anything quite as insipid as "I'm a PowerPoint Guru and would lose some of my competitive advantage if it became less popular." You are mistaking the message for the medium. Did you ever hear of a writer go around telling people he was a "typewriting Guru?" I could equally make the same assertion about my own (pre-PP days) lectures, my only prop to establish myself as a lecturer of authority was a 3-piece business suit. By your measure, I am a "3-piece business suit guru." People who would be fooled by such trivial external appearances (and there were many) are deadwood in any management hierarchy. Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to change the world? Powerpoint is sugar water for corporate drones. Do you want to fatten people with empty calories, or do you want to give them sustenance?

Posted by: Charles E at December 16, 2003 06:38 PM | PERMALINK

David Byrne proved that anybody can learn to love powerpoint...

Posted by: Frugal Liberal at December 16, 2003 06:44 PM | PERMALINK

Didn't Tufte criticize the pen-and-paper engineering reports that failed to stop the Challenger launch? (It was in Visual Explanations, I believe.) I don't like PowerPoint either, but this seems a bit rich.

Posted by: Matt Stevens at December 16, 2003 06:50 PM | PERMALINK

Powerpoint isn't the problem, it's the users. I know it's a cliche.

There used to be a time when slide presentations would contain bullet-point summaries and pics and charts, but would be supplemented by handouts. These days the handouts are just the powerpoint slides with seven blank lines off to the left for notetaking. In the old days, the Nasa handouts would probably have a whole paragraph or two about how the shuttle is doomed, and in complete sentences (or as complete as engineers can make them).

Sometimes software solutions make us lazier, not more efficient. Hmm. Maybe it is Microsoft's problem.

Posted by: Amitava Mazumdar at December 16, 2003 06:52 PM | PERMALINK

Chalk and good blackboard. Simply can't be beat.

A good whiteboard and pen combo is good, too, but still inferior to chalk.

- Anarch
Mathematician and proud of it.

Posted by: Anarch at December 16, 2003 07:00 PM | PERMALINK

I took Tufte's class in college, and I really like the guy, especially since he gave me a break on the fairly awful paper I did which purported to be a statistical comparison between Internet IPOs and tulip bulb mania.

He knows his shit, and he gets paid big $$ to dish it out. I believe he is responsible for the NYT excellent display of statistical info.

Kevin, I think you missed his point about Power Point, which is that its rigid format inhibits the creative display of information; more specifically, it prevents statistics from being displayed properly.

Ever tried to import an Excel spreadsheet into PowerPoint? If the dimensions aren't right, it quickly becomes impossible to balance font size, width, etc.

I'd go beyond Tufte and say that the standard screen dimensions of computer monitors are a problem. Ever tried to display a large region with 20' contour lines--say, a topo map of California? Can't do it!

Posted by: praktike at December 16, 2003 07:30 PM | PERMALINK

I remember way back when....

I started working as an accountant in the early 80's, just as we were starting to rely on the PC as a tool. Someone told me way back (and I remind myself daily)..."this is a tool to help you to think through complex problems." That is so true. Kevin, thank you, you called it (these software packages) a tool. That is what they are.

When the car breaks down, do you blame the screwdriver?

These packages (ppt, excel, etc) have become so ubiquitous that people think they are replacements for "thinking." Ugh!!! Jon H, your comment is it!!! People rely on the presentation, not the THINKING that is supposed to follow the presentation.

I am a CFO for a small company. I make presentations to venture capitalists all the time on ppt and excel. If they're not THINKING about what I'm presenting, I know it's a waste of time.


Posted by: KissyO at December 16, 2003 08:06 PM | PERMALINK

I can't resist:

Keynote kicks PowerPoint's ass.

Posted by: 16 at December 16, 2003 08:06 PM | PERMALINK

PP has proven to be a perfect sheild for the inept and incompetent. In some of the consulting work I've done, I have sat through 2-hour PP presentations by middle and upper management people that were completely devoid of content. One fairly recent one involved a makeover of a captive restaurant at a resort. The resort GM brought me in because he wanted a take on how his people were communicating. Half of the 3-hour meeting was a PP presentation by second-tier management. The entire presentation was on salt-shaker choices. At the end of the presentation, the only information that had been presented was that salt shakers exist, and people in restaurants tend to use them to dispense salt, pepper, and similar granular seasonings.

These people had worked for several days to put this together. They were very proud of what they'd done, but failed to realize that what they'd accomplished was less than zero: At the end of the meeting, the process was were it had been two weeks previously--except, of course, that a half-dozen highly paid people had managed to waste three whole days of work time to put the presentation together, then waste another half day to show us all how they'd wasted those days.

The above is one of the more egregious examples, but I've seen plenty of others. Usually, these things come down to people having done lots of work right after they had lost sight of the real object of the exercise. For the button-heads above, the entire exercise should have been taken care of in 10 minutes by simply passing around representative salt shakers and saying "Let's pick one."

Yes, I have LOTS of contempt for PowerPoint. But that's probably because I've never seen a single presentation that couldn't have been cut in half or done more simply with some b asic handprops.

Posted by: Derelict at December 16, 2003 08:09 PM | PERMALINK

I HATE Being on the other End of a Power Point Presentation. I've seen them used in the academic and professional world and have yet to see even one decent use of this product. Over head projects/chalk boards/white boards are better technology then this conglomeration of shitty lot of zeroes and one.

Posted by: Texan at December 16, 2003 08:15 PM | PERMALINK

I keep hearing about the Tufte book, so I guess I'll have to pick it up.

Anyone heard of a book called "The Psychology of Everyday Things"? It's about how people react to certain designs, and why some are better than others. For some reason I thought of that when looking at the Tufte book at Amazon. Great book, anyway, think of it all the time, when trying to pull on a push door, using new software, designs of buildings, etc.

Posted by: NJC at December 16, 2003 08:28 PM | PERMALINK

Charles E: my my....

All I meant is that I have a lot of technical expertise in making nice PowerPoint presentations. Plus it was kind of a joke. These days, I'm a blogger.

Praktike: I haven't read Tufte's paper about PowerPoint, just read a couple of interviews. However, based on my experience, I would say that crappy charts and graphs are almost entirely due to people who don't have a clue how to make good charts and graphs, not PowerPoint. It is simply astonishing the poor grasp that most business people have of how to make use of numerical information. Most of them literally don't even know which numbers to use and what they mean, let alone how to create a graphic that presents it.

Derelict: yeah, I agree. I don't like taking classes much because I hate having to go at someone else's page. I've come to dislike PowerPoint presentations for the same reason, although it's unfair in a way. After all, people can be slow and boring without PowerPoint too.

Actually, my real pet peeve is Excel. I have an entire theory worked out about how Excel has fucked up an entire generation of business people. But I guess you'll have to wait for the book.

Posted by: Kevin Drum at December 16, 2003 08:39 PM | PERMALINK

Speaking as a mechanical engineer, view graphs, and their successors like powerpoint, seem to be an excuse to lie.

"We can't find out ass with both hands. We haven't examined basic issues. But this is a cool slide."

Posted by: Matthew Saroff at December 16, 2003 08:42 PM | PERMALINK

Derelict: LOL. Been there, done that.

Still, that's really a problem with the people, not the medium. Without PowerPoint they still would have wasted all that time because they fundamentally didn't understand what they should have been doing.

(Although it's true that PowerPoint excels at giving people a good way to hide that fact.)

Posted by: Kevin Drum at December 16, 2003 08:43 PM | PERMALINK

This should be obvious, but the great thing about the chalkboard is that it forces the presentation speed to be the same as note taking speed. For math, it's even better because you can stay engaged by trying to stay slightly ahead of the presenter.

I soured on PowerPoint long ago while interning at a national lab. I developed a PowerPoint presentation with complete sentences and good parallel structure. My boss turned all the sentences into fragments and all my verbs into nouns. I was told the sentences and verbs weren't professional. This isn't PowerPoint's fault, but it seems there is an unwritten manual that enforces these habits of unclear thinkers.

Now I hear it is unprofessional to give a business presentation without PowerPoint. I wonder which company promotes that dogma?

Posted by: Matt at December 16, 2003 08:46 PM | PERMALINK

Bad NASA presentations are nothing new: one of the main causes of the Challenger crash was a confusing graph showing the temperatures during previous shuttle lift-offs. If the table had been clear, it would have been obvious that the morning of the Challenger disaster was going to be far colder than any previous lift-off.

Incidentally, a great book on NASA's organizational problems and their relationship to the Challenger disaster is "The Challenger Launch Decision" by Diane Vaughn. One look at the tables in the book, and you stop wondering how they could have ever given the go-ahead.

Maybe NASA engineers need a mandatory course in communications?

Posted by: Maya at December 16, 2003 08:59 PM | PERMALINK
Anything you can display on a 8-1/2x11 sheet of paper can be put into a Powerpoint slide. Resolution is not the issue.
I can fit about 2000 characters on an 8.5x11 sheet of paper. You put 2000 characters on your Powerpoint slide and project it on the wall. I think you'll change your mind. (This trick doesn't work only for text; try small-multiple charts.)
Posted by: Andrew Lazarus at December 16, 2003 09:08 PM | PERMALINK

Following along the (general) theme of PowerPoint bashing, here's a website that shows how the Gettysburg Address would've appeared had Lincoln used PP. It's actually pretty funny -- assuming you know the Gettysburg Address already.

Posted by: Jim E. at December 16, 2003 09:10 PM | PERMALINK

Oops. Here's the Gettysburg Address website:

Posted by: Jim E. at December 16, 2003 09:10 PM | PERMALINK

I'm a mechanical engineering grad student and one of our undergraduate requirements was a course called "technical writing" (I got my B.S./currently getting my masters at UT-Austin). They course objective said they were also going to teach us presentation skills and it turned out to be a "how to use power point" class. We were actually quizzed over what font sizes should be used. It was a useless class.

As for the Columbia I recently went to a presentation called "Columbia Causes and Consequences" by Dr. Hans Mark who is currently an engineering professor here at UT (his past jobs include head of the Neutron Physics Group Laboratory for Nuclear Science, Lawrence Radiation Laorotory, Director of Ames Research, Secretary of the Air Force, Worked in the DoD under Clinton, and was Deputy Administrator NASA.) I think he'd either have a laugh or some four letter words for anyone who suggests that Power Point was responsible for the disaster. In his mind (and he is as candid as possible) the disaster is the fault of those currently running NASA ans he thinks they need to be removed ASAP.

Posted by: Josh Maxwell at December 16, 2003 09:30 PM | PERMALINK

There's lots of famous memos in engineering that have hidden serious safety problems. If you read a book on Three Mile Island, you'll see the same sort of communication problems. I'm sure if you go back to WWII, similar issues could be found.

Posted by: snore at December 16, 2003 09:38 PM | PERMALINK

well, Kev, I didn't mean that as a personal insult. You usually sound like a smart and rational guy, and your defense of PP seemed irrational to me. OK, I'll now assume you were joking.
Like you, I have a ton of specialized expertise, most of it in extremely arcane areas of computer graphics. But these days, I too am primarily a blogger. Somehow I discovered that the power of words is as good as the power of carefully crafted visual images. But ultimately, weak ideas lead to weak expression, regardless of the media. People are generally weak thinkers, and this also goes for the kind of idiots who are suckered by the slick appearances of fancy PP presentations, and fail to notice the lack of content.
And yeah, don't get me started on spreadsheets either. I've used them all, Visicalc, Multiplan, Lotus 1-2-3, Symphony, Jaz, LisaCalc, Quattro, Excel, etc etc. How many sheets could a sheethead spread if a sheethead could spread sheets?

Posted by: Charles at December 16, 2003 09:50 PM | PERMALINK

"PowerPoint, which can be found on two hundred and fifty million computers around the world, is software you impose on other people."

Posted by: Linkmeister at December 16, 2003 09:54 PM | PERMALINK

Give me PowerPoint, a government bureaucrat, and 5 minutes; and I will give you some lunatic government contract for a billion or so.

Remember, we are not talking rocket scientists here. This is who you are dealing with:

Star Trek fans who barely made it out of pre-calculus in college, and think that Dr. Spock is a real person.

The same group of numbskulls who couldn't tell the difference betweeen the metric system and emglish system; sending a $250 million rocket crashing onto mars.

Lunatics who coudn't perform a simple optics test on the Hubble telescope, the barely educated that spend $100 billion on SDI space junk.

Blew $10 billion on the Thaad ABM system.

Built the stealth warship which had a wake so big it was impossible to miss the thing in the ocean.

In short, we are tallking about Lockheed-Martin; the bozo company that has been behind every major American technology disaster in the US over the last 20 years, including two shuttle disasters, the Hubble, SDI, at least three major computer integration fiascos for the State of Californis, the strealth warship, F-22 cost over-runs, and a not yet incurred loss of $20 billiuon on the advanced fighter, which they most assuredly will screw up.

In short, a company made of bozos from second rate colleges whose only mission in life is life time screw ups on the government dole; a welfare program for the technical illiterate.

Posted by: Matt Young at December 16, 2003 11:17 PM | PERMALINK

Matt Young: Dr Spock is, in fact, a real person. I think you mean Mr. Spock.

When I initially read the post I pointed out to the resident rocket scientist that this was not the fault of the tool, but of the people using the tool. To which he replied that it is not possible (or professional as someone notes above) to do a presentation without it any more. And whose fault is that I respond. Could it be ---- Satan?



Posted by: Mary Kay at December 17, 2003 12:52 AM | PERMALINK

I teach history, and Powerpoint is great if I use it as a more manipulable overhead projector. It works much better than chalk and a blackboard.

Posted by: Michael at December 17, 2003 04:50 AM | PERMALINK

If you're talking about the safety of a space shuttle mission, complete sentences describing a logical train of thought would be nice.

Now obviously there wasn't a logical train of thought in the building at the time. The people who were supposed to be presenting one got away with presenting rubbish instead. So, who to blame?

Obviously, the people giving the presentation and the ones looking at it bear a large part of the blame.

But people are never perfect. It does make sense to put part of the blame on a presentation system that makes badly-organised rubbish look as good as coherent thought.

How long before politicians start using PP? Or will they never, because it's so impersonal?

In theoretical physics (my field), the OHP is still alive and well - with even the occasional hand-written slide. But then, it's common for the audience to interrupt a presentation as well.

Posted by: TomD at December 17, 2003 05:16 AM | PERMALINK

Oh, this will be fun! I Hate Powerpoint! HATE IT!

OK, now that I got THAT out, now some real thoughts. . .

For the record, I am not only a Powerpoint guru, but also a graphic design guru. I do nothing but this kinda stuff all day, since I oversee the design and production of the 20th-largest circulation magazation inthe country. I also build my own computers, do professional music recording on a computer, blah, blah, blah...I use all the state of the art shit for design, have used it for years.

I therefore state the following:

1. The LARGE majority of Powerpoint presentations are simply coverups for poor speakers. Just how many MORE times will I have to sit through someone reading off their damn presentation, word for word, letter by letter, an exact duplicate of the screen???

2. Additionally, most Powerpoint presentations, like their cousins the Word documents, look like explosions in a type foundry. One of the unfortunate by-products of computers is the illusion that "I CAN type, therefore I WILL type - any and everything - and the world will love me!" Back in the day when people who did "design" actually had some TRAINING, only the village idiots would attempt to use more than two typefaces. Now, computers turn every fool on the face of the earth loose, who blithely proceed to use EVERY damn font they have on a single page! (Admit it - you KNOW who you are!)

3. This brings me to a correlate point. One of the first victims of the "computer revolution" was the virtual death of an artform - typography. Around 10 years ago, the time-honored discipline that real typographers brought to design died at the hands of some secretary in front of a Mac. These folks, working in a craft that stretched back centuries, understood the notion that the ability to use every typeface in the world doesn't mean that doing so is alright. They understood the almost spiritual dimension of the tension between the dark black type on the stark white paper.

Powerpoint users are, unfortunately one of the populist responses to this loss of craft. I have no real fucking clue what to do here, but one of these ugly templates, along with my vapid ideas, and LOTS of animation, might actually convince someone that I'm not a total fool!

Good speakers and presenters can do so JUST FINE without the damn Powerpoint presentation. They have the ability to conjure up images in the imagination through their artful use of words. JFK did not need a Powerpoint presentation to go along with "Ask not what your country can do for you..." Martin Luther King did NOT need bullet points with flyouts for "I Have A Dream!"

And finally: 4. If you plan to read aloud all the shit on the screen, PLEASE just give me a printout and let me read it. By myself. WITHOUT YOU! Or email it to me. I can read. Your verbal skills usually suck. Powerpoint will NOT save you!

In conclusion, LEARN HOW TO SPEAK. Learn how to convince people of the value of your ideas WITHOUT Powerpoint. Good presenters lose NOTHING without Powerpoint. Good speakers' strong ideas are only enhanced by any visuals. Let the words from your lips fire the imagination of your listeners. If you can't do that, DO NOT expect Powerpoint to make the misery of your listeners more palatable.

Now for some coffee...

Posted by: Jon at December 17, 2003 05:39 AM | PERMALINK

Also: use spellcheck. Then you wouldn't type words like "magazation" instead of "magazine."

I need an editor. . .

Posted by: Jon at December 17, 2003 05:41 AM | PERMALINK

By the way, Tufte thinks that good Flash animation is worth doing, because it uses the computer screen to show things that paper, for all of its great attributes, cannot. In his lectures, he uses a number of examples of good flash (and other) animations to make his point.

Posted by: Tim Francis-Wright at December 17, 2003 06:25 AM | PERMALINK

Of course you also have to take up at least one quarter of every screen with repetitive info about your organization and the title of your presentation.

Butterflies, sunbursts etc are always nice.

Why use a single color for the background when you can shade from dark to light?

Posted by: ____bushleague at December 17, 2003 06:30 AM | PERMALINK

Jim E:
Re: Gettysburg
Game, set, match!

Posted by: steve cohen at December 17, 2003 06:34 AM | PERMALINK

All due respect to the investigation board, and PLEASE carry on with the PowerPoint-bashing, as is everyone's god-given right.

But, the premise is total horseshit. Anyone that's been following the entire chain of events knows that PowerPoint was the least of the problems at NASA. There was a *total* breakdown of communications. It doesn't matter if you use PowerPoint or a hand courier in a situation like that. There were numerous opportunities for the message to get across, and not one of them involved PowerPoint. Yet the message was ignored or cut off at every turn.

Ferchristakes, the MEDIA was already peripherally aware of the 'splatter' during the launch. Footage was even on CNN for a few cycles.

Furthermore, this highly visible finger pointing at PowerPoint can lead to the unrealistic expectation that if they get RID of PowerPoint, "everything will be just fine." Does anybody actually think that's the case? And does nobody doubt that that will in fact be seriously suggested before the dust settles?

I hate to say it, but if this kind of thinking takes root at NASA, we might as well start dismantling the program now, before somebody else dies.

I can't find Frank Borman's (I think it was him) comment on Apollo 1, but it went somewhat along the lines of "We accept risk, but we don't invite it." The astronauts are at times too trusting in thier administration.

I'd like to think that if the crew of Columbia had been fully aware of what was going on at Houston, they'd all have walked away from it.

Posted by: grimmtooth at December 17, 2003 07:41 AM | PERMALINK

"if you're good at presenting ideas, you'll probably do fine with PowerPoint. If you're not, you won't."

That pretty much sums it up.

I use PowerPoint in two ways. One for making a presentation, and another if I'm sending something out for someone to sit at their desk and view at their leisure.

In the first case, it is for my benefit, not the audience's. I list my talking points as bullets and talk about each in detail. I never use a "script", but the PP provides a nice guide and seems more natural than looking at a paper outline. The only actual content would be a chart or graph or something to illustrate a point. Sure, that's abusive, and possibly distracting, but they expect a freaking PowerPoint so I have one.

In the latter case, I cram it with information and details and screen shots and report examples and so forth, with (tasteful and useful) animations and effects to create a flow and highlight certain things.

But I still hate being subjected to it, and agree that the very worst presentation is one where every single scripted word is crammed on the slide with an empty suit reciting from it (and having trouble reading the words sometimes).

Posted by: skbubba at December 17, 2003 07:45 AM | PERMALINK

Most of the comments have been addressing the idea that the PowerPoint slides are intended for the audience.

I would argue they are primarily for the benefit of the speaker. The slides outline the talk, capture the topic sequence, and remind the speaker of the points they need to make.

Posted by: Mark at December 17, 2003 07:49 AM | PERMALINK

This is starting to sound a little like the "5 paragraphs" debate a few weeks back. Both Powerpoint and 5 paragraphs are designed to allow inexperience and/or mediocre communicators to get their point across adequately. Neither are intended to be the sine qua non for experts in communication. If you are the sort who rambles, gets off point, wanders, and overruns your time, powerpoint is good. If you are the sort who rambles, gets off point, wanders, and writes in 10 pages what can be presented in 1, 5 paragraphs (and its relatives, for longer/shorter theses) is a useful starting point. If you are the great communicator, on paper or in person, Powerpoint is less useful. Same with 5 paragraphs.

Powerpoint is an acknowledgement that presentations by certain people are going to be painful to sit through. They might as well be painful, but organized.

Posted by: rvman at December 17, 2003 08:07 AM | PERMALINK

My pet peeve has always been gratuitous use of 3-D. If the information you are presenting is fundamentally 2-D in nature, using 3-D boxes, etc. just makes the diagram look too "busy".

Also, I am relatively confident that if you tested two versions, one a simple 2-D diagram, and the other a fancy 3-D diagram, the 2-D version would result in faster, more accurate interpretations. (Unless, of course, you are trying to present information that is fundamentally 3-D in nature, such as function over 2 dimensions.)

Posted by: someone at December 17, 2003 08:40 AM | PERMALINK

"Powerpoint isn't the problem, it's the users. I know it's a cliche."

"PP has proven to be a perfect sheild for the inept and incompetent. "

"I HATE Being on the other End of a Power Point Presentation."

You could substitute the "five paragraph essay" for powerpoint in about any of these.

And, Kevin, I LOVE Excel. Same is true for it as for all technological crutches.

Posted by: denise at December 17, 2003 08:42 AM | PERMALINK

Boy, that was badly written. I didn't mean I love all tech crutches. I meant they can all be wonderful if used properly and a nightmare if used poorly.

Posted by: denise at December 17, 2003 08:43 AM | PERMALINK

This is old news and was at least referred to in the November Atlantic Monthly's cover story.

Posted by: monocle at December 17, 2003 10:21 AM | PERMALINK

I work for a webcasting company and after having seen hundreds of different PowerPoint presentations by major corporations in different industries over a span of several years, I can safely say that 99.9% of all people are completely incapable of communicating ANYTHING through PPT. People try to use bullet points to explain complex scientific, financial, technical (etc) concepts and it just doesn't work. (But it is good for sales pitches, I must say.)

Tufte is indeed a crank, but he gives a damn good information design seminar, lemme tell ya...

Posted by: Angela at December 17, 2003 11:27 AM | PERMALINK

It isn't just PP, though the program makes horrible presentations easy enough to delude bad presenters into thinking that presentations don't require careful thought before, during and after, and for that it earns my animosity.

In my experience, we as a people have _wretched_ visual argumentation skills. My students, even the brightest, most articulate of them, turned into the visual equivalent of three-year-olds babbling when asked to do presentations or web-based work.

This is deeply disturbing, not simply from a "God, no more bullet-points!" perspective; if people are unable to create a decent visual argument, they are also unable to dissect one created by someone else. Given the power of visuals to persuade audiences, I am worried about our national illiteracy on this point.

Posted by: Rana at December 17, 2003 01:13 PM | PERMALINK

Jon nailed it above. People aren't taught to do presentations: they're taught PowerPoint. People aren't taught to write documents: they're taught Word.

Back in the dark ages, if you had to typeset something you'd need to talk to a typesetter, who would have at least some knowledge of proper design and some restraint. Now, you use a word processing or typesetting package, and have no idea what you're doing. The "explosion in a type foundry" results from not knowing good design. (By the way, ever notice how bad the typesetting is in Word?)

Now, horror of horrors, everyone's editing their own home videos. I have to learn to sleep with my eyes open.

Posted by: RichK at December 17, 2003 01:16 PM | PERMALINK

It isn't that PowerPoint is bad, or that something in the nature of PowerPoint contributed to the communications failure that resulted in the Columbia flameout.

PowerPoint is designed to facilitate a particular style of presentation. That presentation style has been used by aerospace contractors and their opposite numbers in the government bureaucracies for decades.

Twenty years ago, I was a graduate student in SoCal, while a friend of mine was working for a Big Aerospace firm there as well. Hearing about his work as an "engineer", I said in jest, "It sounds like your job isn't to design satellites at all, but to design viewgraphs with bullet points." His answer: "That's about the size of it, yes."

Now with PowerPoint as part of Microsoft Office, installed at point of sale on millions of PCs, everyone has what it takes to be an aerospace engineer. Were you afraid that using a PC was like rocket science? Guess what: it is.

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