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PowerPoint Tyranny -- Dickeson

February 2005
"Thank goodness I'll never have to sit through another PowerPoint slide show again," said my late friend Dennis Hiser on his retirement from World Color in Chicago. That remark puzzled me. Then I heard about Lou Gerstner taking over at IBM. He stepped in front of a PowerPoint projector and interrupted a presentation saying, "Let's just talk about your business." IBM was shocked. Scott McNealy hated PowerPoint presentations so much he banned them from all Sun corporate offices. Again I was confused.

Then I got hold of a small booklet with the title "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint" by Edward R Tufte and, for the first time, began to recognize what troubled Hiser, Gerstner and McNealy. Presentation programs, whether on "foils" or in computer software, tend to stupefy, or utterly bore, audiences to distraction. How many of these have I presented in past years? I'm ashamed to admit my guilt. Millions of "slides" are being prepared each year. How many of these PowerPoint presentations have you been forced to endure in the past year or two? How many have you given?

Used to Excess

They're not only given as presentations at trade meetings. Many companies now use them internally to present everything from budgets, to sales strategies, to the speed of binders, to the number of lost time accidents. It's so easy to prepare a PowerPoint speech and then stand there and read the slides aloud as though the audience has not already read them. (PowerPoint is the name given by Microsoft to its software package. Every other supplier of an office suite has its set of similar programs called by other names.)

They're included as presentations on the Internet sites and in e-mails. We're rapidly becoming a nation, in fact, a world, of PP heads.

Well, what's wrong with the PowerPoints? The principle fault, says Tufte, is that they tend to constrain thought to "bullet points." PowerPoint becomes a straitjacket for the mind, condensing thought to a linear outline of what you can say and what the audience can think. The real world doesn't work that way. Tufte traces much of the Challenger and Columbia space catastrophes to failed PowerPoint reasoning expressed by NASA and engineers of suppliers.

The outcomes of those flights might have been different had opinions been more clearly expressed than they were in bullet point outlines of linear thinking.

Tables and charts in PowerPoint can only show limited information because of the space available on a computer screen or in a computer printout. A more complete picture might have triggered additional thoughts. They represent a formal managerial style of hierarchy.
 

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