PowerPoint Tyranny -- Dickeson
"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.
The outline format represents the speaker's reasoning. Real audience interaction, were it not constrained by the PowerPoint logic prepared by the speaker, might lead to an entirely different conclusion. The PowerPoint abbreviated form of reasoning is, therefore, a restraint on audience interaction. Hence the tendency to nod off in boredom or to reach a mistaken, or limited, view of a problem.
It's strange, but the PowerPoint outline style—linear reasoning format—makes no sense at all to the Japanese or other Asian peoples. In the Orient, supporting points loop around the main point without creating a linear argument, leaving the reader open to inference. Does this tell us something?
It's true, as Tufte and others point out, that we read printed materials much faster than we speak them. As a result, members of an audience will grasp written words on a PowerPoint screen at a much greater speed than a speaker can say them aloud. This explains why many bullet point presentations must delay revealing those points, waiting for the speaker to catch up, or trying to get ahead, of the group.
And then there's all that PPPhluff, as Tufte calls it. It starts with the colors and presentation style of "templates" that further constrain the space available for context. It includes the points flying in from left or right, above or below, in some kind of mysterious pattern of appearance and disappearance, or fading to different colors. There are even sound effects for emphasis. Anything, anything at all to keep the audience awake!
Crux for Poor Speakers
As always, there are plenty of bad characteristics mixed in with the good in PowerPoint slide shows. For example, there are at least as many poor speakers as there are good ones. Maybe more.
Getting thoughts organized in PowerPoint bullet points in advance at least forces the mediocre speakers to think out, in advance, where they're going and to give them a terminal point; a consummation devoutly desired by those suffering an otherwise boring waste of time. That's a cynical view, isn't it? But that view detracts from the coffee breaks, luncheons, cocktail hours, dinners and private conversations where real interaction of a meeting can occur.
What should the speaker do in place of the typical PowerPoint slide show? First of all he/she should prepare hand-outs to be passed out in advance of speaking. If there are lengthy tables that need the length to supply cognitive context, get 'em out there! Get the graphics out there! Let charts speak for themselves. Let the crowd go over them and do some thinking while listening. The group may learn something from "the wisdom of the crowd." There may be dynamite interaction. The group may be smarter than the speaker! It often happens where a speaker has the courage to encourage.
If you must use a slide show presentation, then use it to advantage. Use slides made from that new digital camera to show relevant photos that support an argument. Or defy current thinking—anything to further the thought process of an audience. Keep the linear thinking of the bullet points to a minimum.
Maybe Tufte's got it all wrong. I don't think so. Spring for the seven bucks to buy his pamphlet and see if you can come up with a PowerPoint to disprove him!
About the Author
Roger Dickeson is a printing consultant located in Pasadena, CA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org