“PowerPoint Makes Us Stupid,” Part II

Yesterday, I shared a slide from a New York Times article about the use and misuse of presentation software. I railed about the misuse of PowerPoint, offering four real issues instead of the shibboleth put forth in the Times article:

  1. Bad presentation design is making us stupid.
  2. Bad presenters are making us stupid.
  3. The use of bullet points without verbal explication and detail is making us stupid.
  4. Our relying on this stuff unquestioningly is making us stupid.

Someone asked, is there an appropriate way to use this particular slide?

Yes, there are two ways in which it could form a valuable part of a presentation.

The Image as Visual Cue

First, I might have shown it as a brief visual while saying, “The world is a complicated place. We have dozens of systems, each of which affects other systems. We’ve created a situation where [crossfade to a butterfly image] a butterfly that flaps its wings in Szechuan may create a storm in St. Louis. The question is, How do we do X in a world with such complex second- and third- and fourth-order effects?”

In other words, the slide would have been up for about eight seconds — enough time to register that it’s showing a mess while making it clear that no one is expected to glean content from it. I know that no one will register what I’m saying while that mess is onscreen, so I would quickly segue to a simpler image that serves as an easily recognized metaphor for the mess. By the time I get to my real point, “How do we do X…,” people are listening to me again — and have a clear context for what I’m about to propose or discuss.

By the way, don’t say “You don’t have to read this.” You can’t control that; people will try to read it, and make sense of it. Rather, cut away quickly, and recognize that nothing you say while it’s onscreen will be understood or retained.

The Image as Analytical Tool

I might also have shown it as a precursor to tracing one of these paths. Show it for five seconds, then zoom in tightly on one aspect of it, such as this.

(I don’t have the original, so all I can do is play with the low-resolution version from the Times.)

“Now let’s look at an example, such as the role population condition and beliefs plays in the larger system. As you can see, there are numerous conditions feeding it — and right above it, many conditions that themselves feed just one of the conditions that influences population conditions and beliefs.”

Then I might zoom to some of the items that this particular thing influences: “So you can see how it affects perception of whatever the heck that small type says, which is affected by X and Y, which also feed into each other. Yadda yadda yadda. The point is that the world is interconnected and complicated. If you make a small change here, you’re not done; that change affects pretty much every other factor on this whirlwind of a chart, and [butterfly slide] just like the butterfly in Szechuan….”

After the presentation, or right after the paragraph above if I wanted to go through it in detail, I’d hand out a printed version of this slide. I wouldn’t hand it out in advance because people would get too caught up in trying to figure it out instead of listening.

From a presentation standpoint, I would probably rework the original to fade out every line I wasn’t focused on, highlighting (and leaving readable) at most a handful of items and the lines connecting them. I’ve done a quickie version on the last image here by drawing shapes around all the things I wanted to minimize, setting the fill color to white and transparency to 20%. They’re properly faded on the version in PowerPoint, though it’s hard to see on the reduced JPEG at right.

Summary

The problem is neither the slide nor PowerPoint, but rather how they are used. I don’t think I’d use this slide as my first choice in presenting this concept, but I could make it work.

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