Reinforcing My Anti-Powerpoint Stance

Of all the people with whom I’ve had in person discussions about the plague that is PowerPoint, no one is as vociferous in their denigration of that application, and the kinds of thinking and communication it encourages than I1 am.

Thus, it is somewhat rewarding to see more and more articles that seem to be trying to push this position into the conventional wisdom. Here’s an extract from one, which goes after the whole notion of how to effectively use computers in education:

More than any thing else, Mr. Bowen wants to discourage professors from using PowerPoint, because they often lean on the slide-display program as a crutch rather using it as a creative tool. Class time should be reserved for discussion, he contends, especially now that students can download lectures online and find libraries of information on the Web. When students reflect on their college years later in life, they’re going to remember challenging debates and talks with their professors. Lively interactions are what teaching is all about, he says, but those give-and-takes are discouraged by preset collections of slides.

He’s not the only one raising questions about PowerPoint, which on many campuses is the state of the art in classroom teaching. A study published in the April issue of British Educational Research Journal found that 59 percent of students in a new survey reported that at least half of their lectures were boring, and that PowerPoint was one of the dullest methods they saw. The survey consisted of 211 students at a university in England and was conducted by researchers at the University of Central Lancashire.

So that’s Bowen and the BERJ on side. How about someone from a different place on the spectrum… say the American Forces Journal:

Unfortunately, as soon as they graduate, our people return to a world driven by a tool that is the antithesis of thinking: PowerPoint. Make no mistake, PowerPoint is not a neutral tool — it is actively hostile to thoughtful decision-making. It has fundamentally changed our culture by altering the expectations of who makes decisions, what decisions they make and how they make them. While this may seem to be a sweeping generalization, I think a brief examination of the impact of PowerPoint will support this statement.

The last point, how we make decisions, is the most obvious. Before PowerPoint, staffs prepared succinct two- or three-page summaries of key issues. The decision-maker would read a paper, have time to think it over and then convene a meeting with either the full staff or just the experts involved to discuss the key points of the paper. Of course, the staff involved in the discussion would also have read the paper and had time to prepare to discuss the issues. In contrast, today, a decision-maker sits through a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation followed by five minutes of discussion and then is expected to make a decision. Compounding the problem, often his staff will have received only a five-minute briefing from the action officer on the way to the presentation and thus will not be well-prepared to discuss the issues. This entire process clearly has a toxic effect on staff work and decision-making.

I’d seriously recommend reading that whole thing, particularly for the breakdown of PowerPoint’s effect on amount of time spent thinking about decisions, and on the kinds of people who make decisions and the kinds of decisions they feel the need to make.

I’d also seriously recommend that if your job brings you in contact with PowerPoint that you spend some serious time thinking about how it might be affecting the work you do, and the way you think about it, and communicate about it.

  1. With the possible exception of my wife, who has done things like present an academic paper at a conference–conferences tend to expect PowerPoint, and the absence of one is often interpreted as being unprepared–and bypassed the expected bullet points slides by producing a presentation where the slide set was composed entirely of vintage advertisements that were displayed behind her as she discussed her topic. She won the ‘best presentation’ award at that conference, btw.(back)

  4 comments for “Reinforcing My Anti-Powerpoint Stance

  1. July 27, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    While I’m no fan of PowerPoint, I think that bullet points are the real culprit to sloppy thinking. As with your wife’s presentation — and many of the TED presentations — the tool itself doesn’t necessarily kill you. My memory of my most boring college lectures is that they were just prepared overhead transparencies that were probably pretty easily slopped into PowerPoint. And this quote

    Before PowerPoint, staffs prepared succinct two- or three-page summaries of key issues. The decision-maker would read a paper, have time to think it over and then convene a meeting with either the full staff or just the experts involved to discuss the key points of the paper.

    smells a little to me of “good ole days” thinking. My memory of this sort of presentation (in my interactions with the US Navy) even twenty years ago is that this two or three page summary was a) rarely more than boilerplate language around bullet points and b) rarely read by the decision makers. A twenty-minute PowerPoint presentation can provide more information than those old summaries ever really did.

    That said, I’ll go read the article and see if my mind changes! 🙂

  2. July 27, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    You’re right, of course. My issue isn’t with the tool itself, but with the culture and kind of thinking it promulgates. It’s possible to avoid falling into the trap, but you have to admit the tool does make the trap pretty simple to hit. You can use it to WIN, but you aren’t expected to.

    I think you’re also right about the summaries not being quite as perfect as portrayed in the essay, but the underlying point that there was a much larger expectation that you would take in synthesized information and actually think about it I think rings true, even if nothing about the system actually enforced that you would do so.

  3. Kira
    July 27, 2009 at 11:42 pm

    Tufte skewers PowerPoint brilliantly in his seminar. He loathes it aggressively and obsessively. But I love it – because to make something that’s actually good you’re forced to organize and distill your thinking so much more tidily.

    Frankly, those folks that listen to the presentations I prepare have no brainspace left to read a 2- to 3-page summary and also think about it. If I give them ruthlessly stripped down, clearly organized points that take out the digestive portion of the exercise, they can actually think about it and discuss what comes up.

    I have seen this in action as my presentations have improved. The bad old stuff – presenting a bunch of information for people to sift through – leads to no discussion at all. People are on ‘receive’, it’s as bad as watching a TV show. The good stuff – PowerPoint used right – leads to spirited debate, and people bringing up alternate data that they want to mesh with the line of thinking on the screen, and people walking out of a meeting with ideas and intended actions. It’s really cool.

  4. August 11, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    So, I’ve decided that MS Project is more evil than PowerPoint.

    However, I thought of this post when I saw US Senator Grassley’s Sir Tax-a-Lot presentation. Imagine if they let politicians have PowerPoint.

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This work by Chris McLaren is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada.