“PowerPoint Makes Us Stupid” — True or False?

There’s a lot of brouhaha today stemming from a report in the New York Times about PowerPoint negatively affecting the US military apparatus. Super-smart graphics maven Nancy Duarte, for example, chimes in here.

A lot of discussion centers on the complex chart topping the NY Times article. Ex-McKinsey consultant and PowerPoint guru explains (and partly defends) the chart here.

Most of this noise, I think, is sadly misguided.

First, PowerPoint is being used synonymously with “presentation software,” with an undercurrent of Microsoft-bashing. Exactly the same charts, good and bad, can be created with Apple’s Keystone, Open Office, and so on.

Second, presentation software doesn’t make us stupid. Taking that comment out of context is more stupid than the comment. It’s a great sound bite, but like most sound bites it lacks substance. It’s like someone quoting the Bible with “money is the root of all evil.” The original quote is “the love of money is the root of all evil” — and even that appears to be a mistranslation of “the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil.”

No, what’s making us stupid in the field of presentation software — and I don’t argue the “making us stupid” part — is twofold. Bad presentation design is making us stupid. Bad presenters are making us stupid. The use of bullet points without verbal explication and detail is making us stupid. Most of all, our relying on this stuff unquestioningly is making us stupid. To wit:

Bad presentation design is making us stupid: Nancy Duarte touches on this aspect, as does Edward Tufte. PowerPoint and its ilk are tools designed to support a presentation, not replace it. As numerous presentation specialists have said, presentation software works best when the images augment and provide a visual context to what the presenter is saying. Presenters who expect the presentation itself to carry the content are part of the problem.

Now sometimes there is deep content that goes up on the screen. Whenever I reviewed budgets or sales numbers in a group, for example, I threw them up on a screen, whether from Excel or PowerPoint. (I used Excel if we were working solely on the numbers, PowerPoint if this data was part of a larger discussion.) And then we took considerable time to understand, study, and comment on the data. Having it onscreen helped me or others point to specific items with everyone in the room understanding what was being pointed out. In other words, even here the data played second chair to the discussion. I didn’t flash this stuff and move on.

Likewise, it’s been years since I used bullet points for anything other than a meeting’s-end (or training-session’s end) summary. Bullet points are fine in this context, because the people in the room have context. They don’t present information; they help people organize information they already have received.

If you’re presenting, you carry the message. Let the visual image augment it and help make it stick. The exception is detailed data — which should also be available to participants in print or on their laptops, if possible, so they don’t have to squint at the screen.

Bad presenters are making us stupid: If you read your slides to the attendees, shame on you. But that’s only part one of a two-part sin….

The use of bullet points without verbal explication and detail is making us stupid: If you put up information-bearing bullet points without further explanation, shame on you. (A summary has — or had — further explanation; so does an agenda, which also might look like bullet points.) Bullet points are like headlines; use the headlines to highlight the story, not replace the story. I like Twitter, but its 140-character streams don’t carry a lot of information; look behind the sound bites, or texting bytes.

Here’s where the military, according to the article and the quoted book Fiasco, got in trouble. Bullet points aren’t information; they are the headlines surrounding the information cache. If you can’t open the cache, there’s no “there” there.

If you need to convey highly detailed information, the best format is a written document. That’s Word, not PowerPoint. If you’re trying to motivate people, encourage discussion, or convey core information, then use your presentation skills — which is not PowerPoint, but youPoint.

Our relying on this stuff unquestioningly is making us stupid: Sound bites make us stupid, because we stop thinking, stop analyzing, stop looking into them. Too many PowerPoint presentations, unsupported by the speaker, are nothing more than a succession of sound bites. Above, I called shame on the presenters for doing this. Here, I call shame on us for allowing it.

That doesn’t mean you have to interrupt, though sometimes you should. Rather, make sure you recognize that you’re hearing/seeing a sound bite; if that’s all the presenter is giving you, make it your business to go behind the screens and gather the information yourself before making a decision, whether that means exchanging mail or having an offline discussion with the speaker or going to the source material.

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