Microsoft’s PowerPoint is frequently blamed for the poor quality of many presentations and for a supposedly- disastrous state of communication in both the private and the public spheres. Public speakers are lambasted for their wooden stage presence, crippled by their over-reliance on projected slide shows and meaningless bullet-points. The slides themselves, too, are often rife with design crimes ranging from clip-art diarrhea to impenetrable verbosity.
And because of the ubiquity of the tool and the technique, because public speakers from Al Gore to members of Australia’s Parliament use slideshows to support their speeches, the software itself has become the de facto target of criticism. I don’t think this is quite fair.
[For the purpose of this argument, Keynote on the Mac is basically the same animal as PowerPoint, so with apologies to both Microsoft and Apple I’ll just use the term “PowerPoint” to mean any slideshow method or tool.]
The most outspoken critic of PowerPoint is Edward Tufte. In his essay “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint“, Tufte makes the case that PowerPoint is inherently flawed because it provides a specific, severely limited vocabulary of communication methods, forcing our ideas to conform to a medium that does not lend itself to complex ideas. For Tufte, the tool itself is to blame.
George Orwell’s classic essay “Politics and the English Language” gets right the interplay between quality of thought and cognitive style of presentation: The English language becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.: Imagine Orwell writing about PP: “PowerPoint becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of PowerPoint makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
Tufte focuses on PowerPoint’s many specific features like bullet pointing, slide templating, and gratuitous animations/transitions (especially insofar as PowerPoint essentially drives you to use these features whether you want to or not). But the basic concept of speaking and having pictures next to you is not undermined by any of his arguments. In fact, he aims much of his attack at the use of PowerPoint to create static documents for unaccompanied digital and paper distribution — few of his arguments discuss the use of PowerPoint in the context of a live presentation.
Another critical study, however, does address this aspect of PowerPoint usage. This study (full PDF paper here) alleges that even when used as part of a live presentation, PowerPoint does more harm than good because its typical usage mode — where the speaker simply reads, verbatim, the contents of each slide as they flip by — flies in the face of how the human brain works. The study’s author, Professor John Sweller, claims that humans have a limit to their “cognitive load”, and that information simultanously presented both visually (as text) and aurally (as spoken words) adds up to less than the sum of their parts, and that the resulting communication and retention is actually worse than if the words, or the slides, were presented by themselves.
The exception, Sweller admits, is when the slides themselves illustrate something that is more effectively communicated as a picture, or when the slide contains words that instead of distracting from the verbal point being made actually helps sum it up in a way that allows the audience to better comprehend and retain the information. In short, slides should underline, not undermine.
It’s Not All Bad
I agree with the point-by-point granular arguments of both of these critics, but I take issue with their shared top-level summary contention that PowerPoint hurts effective communication. When Tufte and Sweller argue, in short, that we should throw PowerPoint away, I wonder if they aren’t throwing the baby out with the bath water.
First, I wonder if the majority of the world’s crappy presentations wouldn’t be just as bad, or even a hell of a lot worse, if the presenter didn’t have the slides to use as a crutch. Tufte himself wonders if PowerPoint’s stupidity isn’t because PowerPoint is a “stupidity magnet”, attracting stupid people to its all-too-easy toolkit. Of course, smart people use PowerPoint all the time, but perhaps these people are simply terrible communicators regardless of PowerPoint, and they would do just as poorly with any other communication tool, or with no tools at all.
I think that blaming PowerPoint or Keynote conflates the technology with the concept of the multimedia presentation. Neither of these two critiques succeeds in discrediting the basic concept that images can help make a spoken presentation a hell of a lot better, by illustrating concepts, summing up key facts, or providing entertainment. And neither argument adequately addresses the obvious application where the visual imagery is, in fact, central to the presentation, such as when discussing a design portfolio, a information graphic, or a battlefield map.
Some Presentation Tips
Slim down. If you are a good speaker, yes, consider dramatically limiting your use of slides to help you remember what you want to say. Think of each slide from the audience’s perspective: Does the slide help them remember what you are saying? Does it keep them alert and more receptive to your words and arguments? This could mean limiting the number of slides you use, or limiting the amount of content on each slide, or both. The bottom line is to try to lose the crutches and rely on your own speaking more. You may need to do this gradually over time, incrementally removing texts and slides from your slideshows until you’ve reached a comfortable and elegant level.
You may even find that your concepts may somtimes be better off with no slides at all. I’ve brought slides to presentations many times only to decide at the last minute to leave the projector off and just talk aloud about my ideas.
You and your slides are inseparable. Unless your slide deck absolutely needs to function autonomously without you there to speak about the slides, do not worry about whether or not each slide makes sense by itself. The best slideshows, in fact, are almost completely nonsensical outside of the context of the live presentation (see the Will Wright example above). This is why I am currently wary of sites like SlideShare which in its current form supports precisely this kind of isolated, speaker-less publication of slides. SlideShare will soon permit the inclusion of audio, which will in my mind dramatically improve the quality and usefulness of the tool.
If you need your deck to exist separately from you, try to record a live audio or video presentation of the slides being presented by the speaker and make that multimedia file the formal document for distribution — not the deck by itself. Think ahead before giving any presentation, and make sure that someone is recording it. (I made this mistake at the IA summit, forgetting to hit the on button on my recording microphone.)
Explore a variety of alternative presentation styles. The TED site offers a page chock-full of speakers who use slides in very different ways.
Take Hans Rosling, whose fast-paced running commentary on development statistics reveals hidden patterns that can change our understanding of the world. Or David Pogue, a tech journalist who can turn a serious speech into cabaret camp. Joshua Prince-Ramus uses visualization software to take a tour of his latest buildings. Frans Lanting uses his pictures to tell the story of life itself, from the Big Bang to the present day. And then there’s TED favorite Ze Frank, who uses software, songs, images, emails — any means necessary, really — to get a laugh.
Evolve. I’ve found that my style has evolved over time specifically because I’ve been watching and emulating other speakers I admire. Every presentation or keynote I attend, no matter how boring or tiresome, usually offers some insight into things I should avoid in the future or, better yet, things I could try to do myself in my own next presentation. I try to change my presentation every time I speak, if only to keep me on my toes and to try something new, and to undermine any tendency to just read the slides.