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:
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
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
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
Posted by Kevin Drum at December 16, 2003 05:46 PM
It didn't really help Powell did it!
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. http://www.debka.com/article.php?aid=743
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.
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.
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.
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
PS Tufte absolutely despises Power Point.
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.
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.
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
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
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
"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:
DON'T LAUNCH THE SHUTTLE
- 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.
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?
David Byrne proved that anybody can learn to love powerpoint...
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.
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.
Chalk and good blackboard. Simply can't be beat.
A good whiteboard and pen combo is good, too, but still inferior to chalk.
Mathematician and proud of it.
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!
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.
LOOK AT THE MESSAGE, NOT THE MESSENGER
I can't resist:
Keynote kicks PowerPoint's ass.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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."
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.)
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?
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?
Anything you can display on a 8-1/2x11 sheet of paper can be put into a Powerpoint slide. Resolution is not the issue.
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
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.
Oops. Here's the Gettysburg Address website:
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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?
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
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.
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...
Also: use spellcheck. Then you wouldn't type words like "magazation" instead of "magazine."
I need an editor. . .
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.
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
Butterflies, sunbursts etc are always nice.
Why use a single color for the background when you can shade from dark to light?
Game, set, match!
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
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
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.
"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
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).
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.
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,
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.)
"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.
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
This is old news and was at least referred to in the November Atlantic Monthly's cover story.
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...
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.
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.
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
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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