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PowerPoint: anathema or boon?
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 133]

Most of the slide presentations use PowerPoint in its easiest way: lots of slides full of bullet point lists. Many presenters even just limit themselves to recite their contents. But with PowerPoint it’s also possible to come off of the beaten track by doing presentations that get to the point: communicating the message clearly.

CognitivePowerPoint.gif (106864 bytes)
The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. 28 pages essay by Edward Tufte on the problems the style of PowerPoint provokes.
Source: Graphics Press. Cover of the essay. Click on the image to enlarge it. 

Recently I had the opportunity to participate in a conference about accessibility. Most of the conferences were interesting and the speakers were convincing but I couldn’t avoid thinking about the fact that most of the presentations (with PowerPoint, of course) were limited to series of slides consisting of bullet point lists.

PowerPoint has become the standard for slide presentations, contributing to create a non negligible market for projectors and accessories for the same. The style it favours makes it very simple to create a presentation in a very short space of time, simply by filling in the most popular format (and the one it offers as default): a bullet list. 

For this reason this type of slide with lists of bullet points that the presenter uses as the base for his/her explanation (and in many cases as the explanation itself by just reciting every item) has become as ubiquitous as PowerPoint itself.

Edward Tufte has recently edited an article in Wired magazine titled “PowerPoint is evil” where he outlines some of the problems that the established style of PowerPoint provokes. We will summarise some of them here (as a bullet list!).

  • The typical presentation elevates format over content giving the appearance of interest to something that can be perfectly void. 

  • Every slide typically shows about 40 words or 8 seconds of reading time. This means that we need a lot of them to complete an argumentation. This implies difficulties in appreciating context and assessing the relationship between some of the different aspects, that can be separated several slides apart. 

Tufte concludes that “rather than supplementing a presentation, it has become a substitute for it”. Maybe a slightly bold assertion but otherwise not far from the truth in many cases.

On his side David Byrne writes in the same number of Wired under the title “Learning to love PowerPoint”, speaking about the artistic possibilities of the program and showing some of his creations, made with the elements it provides.

In my opinion there’s something that appears to be obvious: PowerPoint is just, and nothing more than, a tool. Its basic configuration makes it easy to create “quick and dirty”, bad presentations by filling a lack of contents space with bullet lists, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t make excellent and clear presentations, which are full of content, with this tool.

Bullet lists aren’t a problem on their own. Nevertheless a presentation full of them, without putting the information into context, can be boring and confusing for the audience.

The key point of a presentation is contents. As Tufte says “if your numbers are boring, then you’ve got the wrong numbers”. If the content is uninteresting or it’s badly structured, animating it or colouring it will not fix the problem.

Another usual aspect of presentations is the lack of interaction with the audience. We presenters usually send a complex message that is difficult to assimilate in the short time available. A message that has no feedback from the audience. 

PowerPointLists.gif (32906 bytes)
It's very frustrating to hear the speaker reciting what we can read without help in the screen.
Source: Illustration by the author, made with PowerPoint. Click on the image to enlarge it

Our proposal is the one we already commented on in issue 119: to distil the concepts of every slide, constructing a graphic that represent them. The result is harder to obtain and the rules to get there aren’t so clear but it has, to my understanding, three advantages (and we come back to bullet lists): 

  • It obliges us to rethink the message (what do we want to say, how will we make it understandable for the audience?) since we aren’t any longer on the beaten track of “making a bullet point list and that’s all”. We need to use our ingenuity to make something non standard that efficiently gets the message across. 

  • Many times a well presented graphic can express the context and the concepts themselves better than any list, specially if the number of items to be considered is high. 

  • When we have little text we are forced to explain ourselves verbally, the natural complement of any graphic. There’s nothing more frustrating than a speaker reading aloud what anybody can read, without help, just by looking at the screen.

Finally, my experience is that whenever one interacts with the audience, asking for or showing them examples close to their experience the presentation is more lively and the message reaches them better. 

In the end, our answer to the question which we began this article with, is that PowerPoint is neither anathema nor boon, it’s just a tool with which it’s easy to give bad presentations, but when properly used, can help us to get a message across. Doing it well or badly is something that depends on us. 


An interesting esssay that summarises Tufte's opinion on the topic is The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint edited by Graphic Press

Links of this issue:

http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/books_pp   "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint" por E. Tufte
http://www.sidar.org/acti/jorna/7jorna/index.php   Conference on accessibility organised by SIDAR (in Spanish)
http://www.infovis.net/printRec.php?rec=persona&lang=2#Tufte   Edward Tufte in Infovis.net
http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.09/ppt2.html   "PowerPoint is Evil" by E. Tufte in Wired
http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.09/ppt1.html   "Learning to love PowerPoint" by D. Byrne in Wired
http://www.infovis.net/printMag.php?num=119&lang=2   Number 119 about "Conceptual Presentations"
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