Monday, December 20, 2004

Concerning PowerPoint

If you've never been required/tempted to use PowerPoint, and never been subjected to a PowerPoint presentation, you can just skip this post.

Edward R. Tufte's polemic, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, argues fairly convincingly that the style encouraged by PowerPoint reduces the information transmitted by presentations.

Tufte, of course, is the demi-god of information presentation, a Yale Emeritus Professor, known for such classics as The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, and Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative. Or, as the New York Times put it, "The Leonardo da Vinci of data."

Cognitive Style is a brief pamphlet, just 27 pages, but there are at least 10 pages worth of material that I'm tempted to quote here. However, since I think you really ought to read the whole thing, I'll just throw out a few morsels:

"Slideware often reduces the analytical quality of presentations. In particular, the popular PowerPoint templates (ready-made designs) usually weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis. What is the problem with PowerPoint? And how can we improve our presentations?"

"PP convenience for the speaker can be costly to both content and audience."

"'The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA.'--Columbia Accident Investigation Board, Report."

"The Harvard Business Review study of corporate planning found that the widely used bullet outlines did not bring intellectual discipline to planning--instead the bullets accommodated the generic, superficial, and simplistic. PowerPoint will not do for serious presentations. Serious problems require serious tools."

"The PP cognitive style is propagated by the templates, textbooks, style-sheets, and complete pitches available for purchase. Some corporations and government agencies require employees to use designated PPhluff and presentation logo-wear. With their strict generic formats, these designer stylesheets serve only to enforce the limitations of PowerPoint, compromising the presenter, the content, and, ultimately, the audience."

"Imagine a widely used and expensive prescription drug that claimed to make us beautiful but didn't. Instead the drug had frequent, serious side effects: making us stupid, degrading the quality and credibility of our communication, turning us into bores, wasting our colleagues' time. These side effects, and the resulting unsatisfactory cost/benefit ratio, would rightly lead to a worldwide product recall."

"Presentations largely stand or fall depending on the quality, relevance, and integrity of the content. The way to make big improvements in a presentation is to get better content. Designer formats will not salvage weak content. If your numbers are boring, then you've got the wrong numbers. If your words or images are not on point, making them dance in color won't make them relevant. Audience boredom is usually a content failure, not a decoration failure."

"The practical conclusions are clear. PowerPoint is a competent slide manager and projector for low-resolution materials. And that's about it. PP has some occasionally useful low-end design tools and way too many PPhluff tools. No matter how beautiful your PP ready-made template is, it would be better if there were less of it. Never use PP templates for arraying words or numbers. Avoid elaborate hierarchies of bullet lists. Never read aloud from slides. Never use PP templates to format paper reports or web screens. Use PP as a projector for showing low-resolution color images, graphics, and videos that cannot be reproduced as printed handouts at a presentation."

Of course, I've just quoted some of the striking bits, not the extensive analysis, visual examples, and careful reasoning supporting them.

The six-slide Gettysburg PowerPoint Presentation on pages 14-15 is not to be missed. It's also available at, together with information on how (and why) it was made and how it has been received.

Warning: Reading Cognitive Style is likely to increase your temptation to run screaming from the room when faced with corporate and military PowerPoint presentations. But if it helps you to prepare presentations that don't tempt your audiences to run screaming from the room, the sacrifice will be worth it.

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