Neddie Jingo has an appalling example of the kind of presentation used to promote our strategic plan in Iraq. Go take a look and weep—it’s one of those meaningless godawful PowerPoint-style assemblages of boxes and arrows. You know what I mean: a nightmare of chartjunk that distracts everyone into contemplating the relationships of graphical abstractions on a screen rather than actually dealing with the substance behind them.
I’m actually very impressed that he managed to also put together a paragraph actually explaining what the graphic is supposed to mean, and that the paragraph makes sense…and exposes the deficiencies in the plan.
Once upon a time, it took a fair amount of effort to put together a slide for a presentation. It involved photography—that stuff with film—and you had to plan well ahead and put it together with some care. You had to think about what you were going to include. And when you put all that work and planning into each slide, once it was projected on the wall, you spent a good bit of time carefully explaining it to your audience. The slide was an illustration of some data, and the interpretation and explanation was done with the words you used to accompany it.
Now what I see with PowerPoint is a proliferation of graphical noise and short bullet points, accompanying by a steady bloating of the number of slides shown. An image is no longer a piece of real-world data, but something the speaker flashes up as a substitute for saying anything. As the Neddie Jingo example shows, it can be a flying piece of fantasy with no substance behind it at all…but string enough of those together and you can zip through a pretense of a talk without actually having to say anything.
One measure of a good talk to my mind is being able to imagine the video projector failing, and the speaker still being able to communicate a sensible idea to the audience. PowerPoint isn’t the point of your talk, it’s a convenience, a crutch, a tool for making some data visible. Nothing more.
Although it does look like it can also be a weapon of mass distraction when misused by the military.