Sunday, September 7, 2008

PowerPoint, What's the Point?

So, people always ask me about PowerPoint presentations.

Well, no, no one asks me about PowerPoint presentations, actually, and maybe that's the point.

But maybe if they did ask me about PowerPoint presentations, I'd answer by saying, what's the point? What's the point of PowerPoint, on the one hand, and what's the point about complaining on the other, as in point of fact, I am powerless to do anything about their proliferation.


The point I am trying to make is that, despite the popularity of PowerPoint, many of the people I come in contact with have a powerful distaste for the medium. Some despise it, while other more moderate individuals only hold it up to ridicule.

Many of us who studied with Neil Postman recall his advice, when it comes to public speaking, never to use visual aids. Apart from the problems that often come up when some sort of technology is being used--you know, just getting it to work right--Neil felt that visual aids only serve as distractions, and that our emphasis should be on the spoken word. It is certainly true that, given a limited amount of time available to prepare a presentation, time spent on visuals will take away from time spent on writing, refining, and rehearsing the speech, which is why I tend to avoid visual aids myself.

But of course it could be argued that PowerPoint has only taken the place of older forms of lecture support such as slides and overhead projectors, and this is true enough. Still, the problem brought on by this new technology has something to do with the fact that it has become so much easier to prepare really snazzy, professional-looking visual aids via PowerPoint than it was before, so that instead of becoming an afterthought, visual aids threaten to become the main event.

Certainly, in public speaking classes in the past, instructors would indicate whether use of visual aids would be forbidden or optional for a given assignment--almost never were they required. But nowadays it is not at all unusual to find a course devoted specifically to making PowerPoint presentations, that is, preparing the PowerPoint itself, and giving your presentation with the aid of PowerPoint, or with PowerPoint being the main point.

Of course, the use of PowerPoint as a crutch is entirely understandable, when you consider that individuals tend to name public speaking as their greatest fear, death coming in a distant second.

To be fair, PowerPoint can be useful when dealing with a speaker who is difficult to understand, say because of a heavy accent, or when speaking to people who have a hard time understanding you, say to folks who are less than completely fluent in English. And of course it makes perfect sense when you need to make reference to images, for example, in a lecture about painting or architecture. From a media ecology perspective, it makes sense to allow for appropriate use of a technology, as well as arguing against inappropriate use.

But otherwise, PowerPoint seems to feed into the worst tendencies of the abstract visualism that came in with the printing press, and the more recent rise of image culture, and it seems to go hand in hand with the decline of eloquence that we have been experiencing over the past century. Perhaps nothing makes the point more powerfully than The Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation.

And then there's this comedy video that Gregory Reynolds recently shared with the Media Ecology Association listserv:

And if you're interested in a more serious assessment, I do recommend Edward Tufte's essay, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within, which can be downloaded as a PDF file for seven samolians (that's US dollars, for those of you who unfamiliar with the old school slang). Tufte is our leading voice arguing for appropriate use of visual aids, diagrams, graphs, tables, and illustrations. A sample from the essay is available free of charge: PowerPoint Does Rocket Science--and Better Techniques for Technical Reports. Although it is probably impossible to say for sure, we have the argument that the space shuttle Columbia disaster may have something to do with oversimplification due to PowerPoint, and a similar argument has been made in reference to decisions made concerning our occupation of Iraq.

To invoke general semantics, the problem with PowerPoint is that it tends to be used to increase our level of abstracting. Just as the map is not the territory, and can never represent the entire territory, we might also say that

  • Bullet points are not the presentation.
  • Bullet points are only part of the presentation.
  • Bullet points do not provide all of the reasoning and evidence being presented.
  • Bullet points are oversimplifications.
  • Bullet points are annoying.
That last bit is not so much general semantics or media ecology, but if you get my point, well, then more power to ya!


Ari Herzog said...

That video is hilarious, Lance! Oh, wait, he was making a joke?!

The takeaway with PowerPoint, as with most things in life, is to align with the KISS method. Keep it simple: white background, black font, limited graphics and charts, etc.

It's one thing if your audience are sales or business professionals, but even then, I'd err on less than more. Moreover, I've heard from some folks in the consulting industry who refuse to do PowerPoints, other than a few background images or words that the speaker will never say.

Bruce Kodish said...

Since I've never used PowerPoint while giving a presentation, I feel constantly tempted to do so, just so I can say I've done it.

If I do succumb to the temptation, I'll remember your and Ari's advice (and possibly still have to kick myself afterwards). 8-)