PowerPointing our way to disaster

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.


  1. says

    I’ve seen far too many crappy powerpoint presentations.

    When doing presentations based on my masters thesis, my supervisor instilled in me the need to be able to explain the whole thing without slides. At the same time, he loved flashy presentations, and instilled in be the need to have the powerpoint slides explain the whole thing without me talking. And at the same time, do this without just saying verbatim what’s written on the slide.

    Let’s just say that a good presentation requires a lot of preparation.

  2. says

    That reminds me of the time my projector failed and I had to teach early Baroque opera using just the blackboard and the sound system.

    The blackboard. In a music class. Ugh. It was like living in the damn Dark Ages.

  3. says

    Scott McNealy claims that banning PowerPoint from his company caused employees to start actually working, thus generating, if I recall correctly, one of their most productive quarters.

    Here’s an interview where he discusses it.

    I banned Powerpoint from our company – I just edicted it. That’s cool – I’m chairman, President, founder, you know, chief cook and bottle washer there and I just edicted it – I just said “out”. I think we are going to have a pretty good quarter because of that. I can’t say for sure, but I guarantee you – if I just gave everybody overheads, you know, blank Mila overheads with all the free pens they wanted – I could drive productivity through the roof, as opposed to having – I mean you’ve all seen these overheads that have 14 pieces of clipart, 13 fonts, right hand justified, spell-check, 13 colours and you know your employee is exhausted by the time it finally comes off the printer. And do they communicate anything? No. This is the productivity drain that we see out there in the marketplace, so the goal here is to not upgrade your PC to get more Å  I mean we’re going to spend hundreds of billions of dollars for what is not a zero ROI but a negative ROI.

  4. says

    Don’t blame the tool. Take a look at a Steve Jobs keynote… there is a way to use PowerPoint (or, umm… Keynote) in an effective, even artistic way. I like to think my own physics and astronomy presentations aspire to that. Single images… single sentences… animations that MEAN something.

  5. says

    My particular peeve with PowerPoint presentations is people who read them word for word. The whole thing. Hell, if you’re going to do that, just give me the handout and let me spend the hour in a more productive way.

  6. says

    It’s gotten to the point where you need to be a graphic artist to use tools like powerpoint – and few of us are.

    I specialize in the abstractions of data modelling and data flow in distributed databases – not topics that lend themselves well to Powerpoint.

    Sez PZ:
    >>> …rather than actually dealing with the substance behind them.

    Where Iraq is concerned, there is a substance behind the slideware, but I’m not sure I’d want to get any of it on me.

  7. says

    I like a lot of things about Powerpoint, such as being able to carry a set of “slides” on a CD or keychain memory instead of in a slide tray. But I certainly don’t create slides using Powerpoint–the suggestions set down for ordinary slides still hold: avoid big tables of tiny type, too many fonts, overly busy slides, pictures of maps that are unreadable, &c. &c. I would always grit my teeth when a speaker started off by saying “I apologize for these slides…” The real advantage of Powerpoint is in the management of slides, not in their creation.

  8. Chris Crawford says

    Deja vu. I remember, way back in grad school, when the first personal calculators were coming back, I bought myself an HP-45, the top of the line back then, and truly a thing of wonder. As I and some other grad students were gathered around, oohing and ahhing, an older professor ambled by, took notice, and dismissed calculators as bad for the mind. We would relax the discipline that allowed us to focus on the ideas behind the calculations.

    Here’s another case: Julius Caesar, in the Gallic Wars, tells how the Celtic druids committed everything to memory and disdained writing as a crutch for the weak-minded. I can just imagine them bitching “Durned new-fangled writing is going to turn everybody’s minds soft!”

    Yet I agree that PowerPoint stuff is badly overdone. Nebbishes the world over and wasting mega-man-hours creating cute and stupid slide shows. I suspect, however, that this too will pass. I recall that, when MacWrite first came out in 1984, and you could use different fonts, different font sizes, styles, underlining, outlining, and so forth, there was a burst of crazy document preparation with every feature exercised, leading to documents that looked like circuses. Eventually people got used to the new stuff and documents became more practical in their layout. I think our society is still in the play-stage with PowerPoint, treating it like a toy rather than a tool. I suspect we’ll use it more responsibly with the passage of time.

  9. says

    Chris Crawford: I’m somehow reminded of my second calculus teacher who had a question on his final: “Do not use a calculator to evaluate square root(46.1)” or something like that. I (and several others) wondered whether we could just simply leave a blank and get credit …

    As for PowerPoint, yeah, it is abused, and it is somewhat like the early days when fonts and styles came to everyone easily. But PP has been around for, what, a decade now or more and people still don’t seem to use it right. Up until my last computer purchase, I didn’t even own a presentation program; I just used AppleWorks’ Draw module. Now I have Keynote, but that’s for file compatibility more than design features. (The transitions are pretty nifty, but …)

  10. says

    Powerpoint tips:

    Use Arial or a similar sans serifs font.
    Any tables, figures, etc done in any other program for any other purpose should be replaced by using the MS drawing tools and text boxes with large font sizes.
    Rip off your colourscheme from a successful, classy business, say, a bank or investment firm (they’ve spent millions of dollars to produce a good image; why think for yourself?)
    For complicated graphics, charts, etc. build them up slowly in chunks and explain each piece.
    Finally: Slide transitions piss me off.

  11. says

    For those unaware, you can do slideshows with PDFs as well. Acrobat has a fullscreen mode, which, if you aren’t doing animations and music, makes it perfectly usable as a slideshow viewer, without being locked in to PowerPoint.

    Also, for those who want PowerPoint without paying for it, try Impress from OpenOffice.org.

  12. cranberi58 says

    If you are giving a presentation on goldfish physiology you are not required to have an animated goldfish swim across the screen when you change slides while making a “blub blub” noise!

  13. SMC says

    OpenOffice.org Impress IS quite nice, and can do a few things that “PowerPoint(r)” can’t (like export to a “Macromedia Flash” slideshow for posting on the web, or directly exporting to .pdf.)

    But, still, PowerPoint(r) poisoning seems to be chronic these days.

    For anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, I highly recommend The Gettysburg Powerpoint(r) Presentation (Yes, the famous Abe Lincoln ‘Gettysburg Address’ if it had been done as a modern Powerpoint(r) presentation.)

  14. says

    Powerpoint has been around since 1987, and available for windows machines since 1990. I would submit that if it were merely a matter of a sufficient amount of time passing, it would already have redeemed itself.

    The problem with powerpoint is that it encourages bad, inadequate visual metaphors and a bullet-point thinking style that deliberately discourages looking at details. This means that it can easily be used to put one over on an audience; however, the more pernicious aspect is that it can put one over on the presenter as well – that is, it can give the presenter the feeling that they know the topic well when in fact they know next to nothing.

    It strongly encourages the “understanding through vigorous head nodding” school of epistemology, which is a bad thing.

  15. says

    For a couple years, I had to do some very equation-heavy physics presentations, so I became a guru with the LaTeX slides environment. That’s right, I did my presentations in LaTeX. When I needed particularly elaborate formatting (say, to fit several graphs on one slide in a nice way), I would design the slide in GIMP, save it as a JPEG and then include the whole shebang as one picture in my presentation file.

    Later, I switched to OpenOffice Impress. I still use LaTeX to generate my equations, though: I just run some source code through the interpreter to get a DVI file, pop open xdvi, do a screen capture and save to PNG, open the PNG with GIMP, crop and trim as necessary, and include the result in my OpenOffice slide. Simple!

  16. says

    I think Powerpoint can be a useful tool – if you actually sit down and work out a properly structured talk first. Unfortunately however, it seems set up to facilitate people who think that cribbing together a random assemblage of clip art linked by flashy transitions is all that is required to produce a good presentation.

  17. Blader says

    I once chaired a symposium where a speaker showed up with 48 slides for a 12 minute presentation.

  18. Blader says

    What I mean to conclude by that is most jumbled and chaotic PPT presentations pretty much reflect the mind that created them.

  19. BMurray says

    Most power point presentations I have seen are actually notes for the speaker. The bullet points are just the same thing I would normally put on my index cards. The only difference is that occasionaly pie chart is included, usually with some clip art.

  20. Steve_C says

    I’ve seen some of his “debates” online but you never get to see the slides.

    They’re maddening even without visuals.

  21. Drew says

    Check out Edward Tufte, (visual design guru), and his tirades about PPT and information density. google has lots of hits about it…..

  22. Steve_C says

    I find the cheers for him the most disturbing.

    this on the other hand… funny very funny

  23. says

    I was once consulting for a company and was going into a presentation to their top management. They were totally shocked when I said I wasn’t going to do any PowerPoint presentation – I think they simply didn’t know how to actually listen to someone talking and pay attention.

  24. says

    I once chaired a symposium where a speaker showed up with 48 slides for a 12 minute presentation.

    Jeez. I think my longest lecture is 22 slides for a 50-minute class. I can’t even imagine going through a slide every 15 seconds.

    Keynote has its issues (for instance, I’d like to have more control over sound files from within the program), but it’s definitely light-years better than PPT.

  25. Steve_C says

    this is how Hovind plows through images in his “seminar”.

    It’s a virtual verbal and visual assault… and all of it is complete crap.

    “How did the world create itself, the devil thought about it a long time a came up with the big bang theory…”

    I didn’t know the devil wrote peer reviewed papers. That devil is so tricky.

    “San Francisco the land of the fruits and the flakes…” Classy guy.

  26. Carlie says

    I’ve always thought that PowerPoint should have a “style assistant”, sort of like the annoying Word paperclip – pops up and says things like “Yes, you can put red text on that purple background, but just because you can doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.”

    My graduate advisor used to help us practice for major talks by running the slide projector (yep, slide projector) and casually dropping slides out, pulling the plug, etc. at random points during the presentation to make sure we had enough knowlege of the subject and composure to keep the momentum going and the audience interested in the case of major mishap. Did me very well later during my job interviews – I had bulbs blow in two successive job interviews, and someone at the one I got the offer for later said they were quite impressed that I didn’t completely freak out when it happened – just picked up some chalk and started sketching on the blackboard.

    I’ve noticed that for class lectures, I can’t use Powerpoint, except for picture shows after the main lecture. If I use it for the main talk, I go way too fast; I have to have the limitation of physically writing it all out as I talk to pace myself.

  27. Keanus says

    I grew up using overheads and sitting through talks where others used them. The failings attributed to PP were just as prominent in the use of overheads as they are in PP. Those failings lie in the organization and graphic deficiencies of the speaker, not in the tool. What word processing and graphic programs on a PC did is give every dolt the capacity to manipulate images, type, and layouts, whether they had the slightest clue how to use them or not. No longer did one need a trained graphic artist to accomplish the work. It’s like giving a kid the keys to car without any lessons in how to drive. The saving grace is that a dolt can’t kill anyone with PP (at least I don’t think so), just put them to sleep.

  28. Torbjörn Larsson says

    “The problem with the Pentagon PowerPoint graphic is this: It reduces the monstrously complex problem of invading and occupying a nation-state to a (gigantic, tortured, overwrought) visual metaphor.”

    Well, duh! I’m a very visually oriented person and I enjoy the speed and simplicity of a visual model. That doesn’t make it harder to recognise “logical lacunae”, instead it makes it faster.

    I fret every time I have to listen to a completely nongraphical presentation because they are usually completely monotonous as well. Conversely there are slide presentations that could do with less slides and more content.

  29. idlemind says

    My favorite Tufte PowerPoint rant:

    PP is a competent Projector Operating System for full screen images and videos, replacing the little forward-back button in old-fashioned projector systems. PowerPoint is neither the best nor the worst Projector Operating System. It faces strong competition from the projector itself with its own forward-back controls. A Projector Operating System, however, should not impose Microsoft’s cognitive style on our presentations.

    PP has some low-end design tools helpful in constructing PowerPoint parodies.

    PP might also help show a few talking points an informal meetings, but why not instead print out an agenda on a piece of paper?

    PowerPoint may now and then benefit the bottom 10% of all presenters. PP forces the really inept to have points, some points, any points.

    — Edward Tufte, December 9, 2005

  30. NelC says

    As a graphics artist, I’ve prepared PP presentations for other people. When I’ve been able to talk to the client, or they’ve trusted me, I’ve been able to rationalise things, by keeping the text down to one phrase or a handful of short bullet points, one simple graphic at most or more complicated graphics broken down (or built up) over a series of slides. Oh, and keeping the colours and type simple and consistent.

    When the client doesn’t trust me, though, I’ve produced some monstrosities by keeping to their strict instructions…. Sometimes obedience is its own reward.

    The only time I ever had a PP to do for myself was a work course in presentation skills, where we had to prepare a 10-minute presentation on a subject of our choosing. I just did a tour of the planets, with a picture taking up most of each slide, and the name of the planet at top. With each planet that I covered the name of the previous planet would change to a word in the mnemonic “Mother very easily made a jam sandwich using no peanuts”, until by the time I showed Voyager’s picture of the solar system the whole thing was showing. I made a few notes, and extemporised. Great fun, but the whole thing lasted twenty minutes instead of ten, though. Shoulda rehearsed.

  31. says

    Bmurray said: Most power point presentations I have seen are actually notes for the speaker.

    And that’s just the thing. I don’t use PP, but I do have my lecture notes on-line, and I throw them on the screen while I talk. But I don’t read them – I’ll glance back at them to remind myself of what topics I need to cover and to make sure I don’t stray too far off topic. I put the notes on screen so I don’t have to spell out all the terms and repeat all the dates five times. PP is like any tool – it’s how you use it. But it make it way too easy for bad speakers to overcompensate with bells and whistles.

  32. Thinker says

    … and IMHO, the primary fault of bad talkers is not having a clear idea of their message: What, exactly, is it that I want this particular audience to know/understand when leaving the room that they didn’t know/understand when entering it? If your thinking about that isn’t crystal clear, no tool in the world is going to make a difference!

    Indeed, some of the best speakers I have heard used no PowerPoint or slides at all. At one evening seminar I particularly remember, there was a power outage in the middle of the talk. The speaker barely missed a beat, she simply continued in the gloom and ended up finishing the talk by the light of a candle that the host had brought in.

  33. says

    I am sitting through a huge, auditorium sized meeting right now. I just sat through a PP presentation where the speaker spent 30 minutes reading every bullet point. This was followed by a short DVD presentation which made no sense at all until after it was over, when the speaker apologized for the narration not working. Sigh.

  34. Dyticum says

    I am old enough to have lectured in the era of photographic 35mm slides, and I have very mixed feelings about PowerPoint. When giving a scientific talk at a conference one often wants to tailor the talk to the audience based on previous presentations, change the emphasis, insert new data sent by postdocs at the last minute, and so on, and the program provides huge freedom to do this. When lecturing to a class, on the other hand, I am much less a fan of PP. I see the slides as tools for presenting something that cannot be easily described in words, but our students believe that the slides represent the course notes, and cannot be convinced otherwise. I start the lecture by telling them that they are expected to understand and remember what I say, and that much of what I say will not appear on the slides. Invariably after the exam I will get emails wailing that the material in question 3 was not “on the slides”. I often wonder whether they were even in the room or whether they imagined that downloading the PP presentation would be just as good. No kiddies, a PowerPoint file is no substitute for sitting through a proper lecture.