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In defense of Powerpoint

The NY Times has an article by Elisabeth Bumiller about the Army’s disenchantment with Powerpoint. It leads people to over-simplify complex problems (although the centerpiece of the article is a graphic that is too complex) and people spend too much time putting together text and graphic decks.

Sure. Fine. We have all sat through presentations at which someone reads through the 15 6-pt bullets on each slide, until by the time he reaches the 19 ways the company can synergize verticalized asymmetries, we’re begging for an aneurysm and don’t care if it’s his or ours. Sure, we’ve all been there. But …

Powerpoint imposed upon wandering business reports and updates a needed and welcome discipline of thought. Powerpoint forced presenters to break what they wanted to say into a set of headlines, and then think about how each headline was supported or elaborated. They could see how many slides they were taking to make their points. Bulleted lists focused the mind.

Powerpoint’s model of thought is better than the ramblings of a self-important business guy who’s grabbed the floor for as long as he feels he’s interesting, but it’s still quite a limited model. Powerpoint encourages us to think in a sequence of brief points, and doesn’t encourage us to express or make visible the relationship among the points. It doesn’t have a built-in way to indicate the clustering of points into a section. You can always create a sub-title slide with a distinctive look, but Powerpoint itself doesn’t encourage us to think that way. For example, it might have a breadcrumbs widget that shows the path we’ve been down as a standard part of slides, but it doesn’t.

What would a presentation system look like that expressed the relationships among the parts? I don’t know, but it probably wouldn’t be a set of discrete rectangles. The mind mapping programs are one approach (although I still haven’t found one that lets me disclose one leaf on a branch at a time, which is often necessary for narrative drama) and Prezi takes another.

Anyway, all I wanted to say is that we ought to remember that Powerpoint made business thought and expression more rigorous and structured.

10 Responses to “In defense of Powerpoint”

  1. “we ought to remember that Powerpoint made business thought and expression more rigorous and structured.”

    Well, that’s one way of putting it. And in a historical context, that may have been the case. However, among PowerPoint’s fundamental flaws is the enforced linearizing of orality.

    Great orators (i.e., presenters) understand (either intuitively or via theory) how ring composition naturally structures narrative for oral transmission and aural reception. In other words, how to tell a good story. Whether it’s in a business context, or planning the invasion of another country, if you want to actively engage an audience, use the literally ages-old method that’s been used to educate human beings for millennia. Otherwise, if you want to put them to sleep or hypnotize them, PowerPoint’s your baby – a classic hot medium.

  2. ¿Remember Harvard Graphics?

  3. “I still haven’t found one that lets me disclose one leaf on a branch at a time”

    Have you seen VUE?

    Is that closer to what you’re looking for?

  4. I rarely see you make a statement that I fundamentally disagree with, but..
    “Powerpoint made business thought and expression more rigorous and structured.”

    While I can’t prove it, I find it hard to believe that the average corporate powerpoint deck is any more rigorous and structured than the average written paper and boards presentation from 50 years ago. The thinking that goes into the presentation is 99% of what matters.

    I don’t know anyone who uses Powerpoint as a thinking tool – it’s far to linear and the interface is clunky Whiteboards (electronic, shared or physical), mindmaps are tools to help with rigour and structure of thought. I guess you COULD use PP as an outliner, but why? Even Word does a better job.

    As tool for PRESENTING information it certainly givers you a structure – but it’s a linear structure that does not allow for audience interaction or joint exploration. Refactoring a presentation is very difficult especially when compared to the ease of refactoring items in a good outliner.

    The visual/graphical aspects CAN add a lot of emotional impact to a presentation – but I’ve seen that done poorly more often than well. And even THEN Powerpoint does NOTHING that you can’t do with preprinted transparencies and an overhead projector. BUT an overhead projector allows the presenter to do free-form collaboration, or diving down into a concept that isn’t being understood by writing by hand with a marker – impossible in Powerpoint.

    VUE looks interesting – if I were to boil it down from my 60 second glance, it appears to be a mind-mapping tool that allows you to store multiple paths through the map as linear presentations. Assuming the linear presentations stay happily connected and magically update node contents as the map is updated, THAT is a pretty nifty trick.

  5. I hadn’t heard of Vue but I’m downloading it now. Thanks!

    Jonathan, my only evidence is my own experience. Management meetings went from rambling discourses — not in the good, free, exploratory sense — to crisper presentations of ideas that were thought through in sequence (linear, rigid sequence, to be sure, and, as my post tries to say, not even a well-contextualized linear sequence). In fact, let me correct that: Powerpoint encourages us to create a linear sequence of ideas each of which has a small set of branches (= bullets). All I can say is that while this is far from ideal, it was an improvement over the prior corporate incoherence.

    And I disagree that no one thinks with powerpoint. If we’re ok with saying that writing is one way that many of us think, then lots of people do indeed get their thoughts in order by doing decks. I’m not saying that that’s ideal (although for some types of thought, it’s actually not bad), but people do indeed use PPT, for better and worse, as a way of pulling ideas together — just as people have used index cards.

    I have no interest in defending PPT other than to say what my post said: It was a serious step up from how business folks presented their ideas before PPT (in general and in my experience).

  6. Prof. Edward Tufte of Yale has done some interesting research on PowerPoint. The news ain’t good:

  7. David,

    Your management meeting experience is broader and predates mine, but it seems to me that it’s not powerpoint per se solving the rambling meeting issue, but the time spent planning the meeting and running the meeting in a planned linear manner.

    Perhaps it has been a bigger help to people than I give it credit for. The main thing that I’ve seen that Powerpoint is particularly good for is fine tuning a presentation, tweaking ahead of time it for a given audience, but also improving individual slides based on questions and comments that come up.

    Pulling your deck up and editing it on a plane after a meeting IS a good way to refine and focus message.

  8. As a retired corporate executive who has seen countless hours of his life lost to PowerPoint presentations, I find Tufte’s POV on this compelling.

    I’m also surprised to see you use this style of argument, David. To say PP is better than a rambling presentation is hardly persuasive. Isn’t it a lot like saying you prefer lethal injections to firing squads? Yeah, sure, but it’s still killing.

  9. Jonathan, I don’t claim any special importance for my experience. It’s simply my experience. It’s one data point. (One datum point??) But, I still soft of disagree with you. If managers spent more time thinking through their presentations because they knew they’d be putting ithem into PPT, I’d still give PPT credit for that; its affordances guided thought in ways that I think were more analytic (broken into smaller chunks, each with supporting or elaborative points). Far from perfect, capable of abuse, linear, etc., but still — in my experience — better than what preceded it.

    Howard, I’m saying the opposite of what you think I am. The difference between the rambling, incoherent presentations before PPT and the more organized and analytic presentations after PPT were exactly _not_ like the diff between injections and squads. There was (in my experience) a real and positive difference.

    Again, let me stress: I am trying to point to one good thing PPT did for business meetings. I am not claiming PPT presentations are fabulousness incarnate.

  10. I would say that any benefit of PowerPoint has been clearly outweighed by people more interested in adding bells and whistles than in clearly understanding and presenting their content. And if we’re really at the point at which we need computer software to organize our thoughts properly, we’ve fallen farther and faster than anyone 30 years ago could probably imagine.

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