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Friday · August 22 2003

Edward Tufte crafts (and I use the word 'craft' deliberately) beautiful books about information design (Envisioning Information and The Visual Display of Quantitative Information). Tufte is a professor at Yale and knows more than you do about how to show data in charts and graphs.

Tufte doesn't have to convince me that PowerPoint Is Evil. I figured that out long ago daydreaming at a company meeting. This short and direct article lays out the argument against the bullet-point boredom monster. If you have ever fallen asleep listening to some middle management clown dictate his Powerpoint slides aloud, read it. If you are bothered that students are more competent at writing bullet points than coherent paragraphs, read it. If you have ever cursed the sight of animal clip art dressing important data, read it. Then show it to your boss, because he/she needs to read it too.

Archived: Techie » August 2003
What you had to say:
October 01 2003

I've found myself wondering what it is exactly that makes PPT evil. Certainly it is dangerous: a graphic communications tool in the hands of people poorly trained in graphical communication is a bad thing. As Tufte points out, hierarchical outlines can be used to lend a spurious authority to banal or misleading statements and imply non-existent chains of inference and conclusion. But this, I think, is not enough to make PPT truly evil. For a long time I wondered what I was missing, until I came across this:

-- quote
Leverage your existing presentations so you donít have to start from scratch. You can import just about any file type into Keynote - including PowerPoint, PDF and AppleWorks presentations - and then enhance with themes. You can paste data from Excel documents into your Keynote charts and tables. Keynote lets you export presentations to PowerPoint, QuickTime or PDF.
-- end quote

here: ... and I realised that Chomsky had answered the question over a generation ago.

PPT, surely, has as its antecedents the blackboard, the flip chart and the ohp. Even used amateurishly, all of these media are effectively deployed in communication. Thinking back to my schooldays, I was always worried about teachers who flourished OHPs rather than wrote on the board, for some obscure reason, but they never struck the terror into me that a session of PPTs can. Why is this? And why did ohps make me more nervous than blackboards?

In the 1970s Chomsky noted that television was destroying political discourse. He realised that, in fact, discourse was stopping, as television demanded immediacy, and is not well suited to the delivery of lectures, encouraging a style of discourse now known as the "soundbite". At first, "soundbites" were the distillation of more complex arguments - and this was the point of Chomsky's objection: that complex political debate was being "dumbed down" into a soundbite for television's consumption.

This was the effect of television itself--as McLuhan spotted, the medium is the message--but the political classes soon got with the medium and rather than "dumb down" the argument to get to the soundbite, dropped the argument entirely to produce just the soundbite. By the 1980s, politics had become merely soundbite packaging: Consider, since when did "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" actually substitute for a policy on criminal justice?

Although politics has always been about sloganeering--wrapping a complex idea into a memorable phrase like "votes for women", "peace in our time", "liberty, equality, fraternity"--there used to be complex political ideas behind the slogans. Nowadays, political parties don't have policies as such, they instead craft soundbites to appeal to target swing voter groups. The party that does this best gets elected.

There are no longer any big ideas in politics not because all the big idea battles have been won, but because there are not anymore big ideas at all - and PPT has helped this happen to the presentation of complex information.

In the past, the notes on the blackboard represented a summation. The teacher wasn't writing all there was to know on the subject - that existed in books, papers, pictures, documents, films, and other archives. The teacher merely presented a synthetic overview of the corpus relevant to the lesson at hand.

The teacher was able to do this (if they were a good teacher) because they had some mastery of that corpus. The notes on the board were ephemeral, epiphenomena of the narrative the teacher's master caused him/her to weave around the source material. On reflection, this is why I got nervous about OHPs.

OHPs were more difficult to produce, and were produced in advance of the lesson. The teacher became preoccupied with the presentation of the OHPs, making sure they were laid out clearly and legible from the back of the class, as they would be unable to effect significant changes on the fly. They would have to prejudge very accurately the length of their talk, and the level of engagement of their audience. They would, in short, have come to see the production of the OHPs as the end in itself, rather than the summative mastery of the subject matter.

PPTs, too, has become an end in itself. PPTs don't summarise more complex corpora, they are the sole embodiment of a piece of thinking, information or ideas. The are lavishly prepared: my anecdotal impression is that for every hour a PPT is worked on, 40 minutes are on looknfeel, and 20 minutes are on content.

As more and more visual tools are loaded into presentation software, as with Keynote, more and more time is spent on the looknfeel. This is what makes PPT evil: it is the primary medium for the expression of ideas in business, and, increasingly, education.

PPT is no longer an ephemeral medium, but a medium of record - so what we record is executive summaries and bullet-points. Not only are complex ideas no longer explored --if they won't fit on a slide, there's no place for them--but people are becoming increasingly ignorant of complex ideas: All thought has become slogans.

Is there hope? Very little, I fear. But I say this - delete your PPT slides after presenting them. Promise yourself that you will always treat them as ephemeral, that your primary sources will be elsewhere, in greater depth, and with more detail, and you may yet be saved.

October 01 2003

Incredibly well stated.

"a graphic communications tool in the hands of people poorly trained in graphical communication is a bad thing"

I would venture that at best 1% of powerpoint users are trained in how to most effectively convey data graphically.

"The are lavishly prepared: my anecdotal impression is that for every hour a PPT is worked on, 40 minutes are on looknfeel, and 20 minutes are on content."

I think that's being generous, but probably about right on average. I have seen aspiring managers pore over their slides for hours to get them exactly perfect. Many large companies have powerpoint standards that presenters must adhere to in order to make their .PPTs part of the permanent record.

"But I say this - delete your PPT slides after presenting them"

That's NEVER gonna happen. Some MBA types treat their hand crafted boilerplate slides as if they were children. Just like pictures of children or pets, they show them off to the rest of us in presentations until our eyes glaze over because we've seen them 20 times already.

© 2003 Jason Keglovitz