Power Corrupts… PowerPoint Corrupts Absolutely

Edward Tufte is professor emeritus of political science, computer science and statistics and graphic design at Yale. He’s also no big fan of PowerPoint, likening it to a widely used and expensive prescription drug that promised to make us beautiful but didn’t. Instead the drug had frequent, serious side effects: It induced stupidity, turned everyone into bores, wasted time, and degraded the quality and credibility of communication.

The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint — pointed out by sbszine — illustrates the absurdities of PowerPoint beautifully.

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  1. lucie

    1 September 2003 at 12.28 pm

    Yes, go Tuftey!! Beat that PowerPoint into the ground!


  2. sbszine

    26 September 2003 at 3.58 pm

    Check this out — Tufte on the Challenger disaster


  3. miglia

    6 October 2003 at 4.53 am

    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:

    “Leverage your existing presentations so you don’t 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.” 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.


  4. sbszine

    7 October 2003 at 11.55 am

    In a similar vein, there’s a great article in the New Yorker on the evil PPT, which includes Scott Mc Nealey’s immortal quote: ‘If I want to tell my forty thousand employees to attack, the word ‘attack’ in ASCII is forty-eight bits. As a Microsoft Word document, it’s 90,112 bits. Put that same word in a PowerPoint slide and it becomes 458,048 bits. That’s a pig through the python when you try to send it over the Net.’


  5. News

    19 December 2003 at 1.53 pm

    PowerPoint is Evil

    The luddites at the PM’s Press office have just sent out a 10MB PowerPoint presentation to everyone on the PM’s media list. It consists solely of pictures of the PM’s staff having a high old time on a single page….


  6. d_themorgs

    2 February 2004 at 3.35 pm

    You PPT detractors sound like a bunch of old curmudgeons! I’m not responding to this posting because I see your attitude as a threat to my lively hood as a presentation specialist. Rather, as a presentation specialist with over twenty years of experience I can tell you that no matter what is on that slide, it will have to be backed up in the Q&A session at the end. It will have to be backed up by the subsequent proposal. It will have to be borne out by the student’s research. And to say that if the idea is too complex to fit on a slide it isn’t used is, unfortunately, not the case. I’ve seen the entire contents of very smart presenter’s brains seemingly dumped onto a few slides. That’s where the pros like me come in. The idea is not to sell the idea in the slides, but to keep the audience interested enough to stay to the end and ask intelligent questions. As a Microsoft product it’s easy to find companions to throw rocks at PowerPoint, but like a lot of things in the “good ol’ days” (Polio and women-as-chattle come to mind), blackboards are something better off a thing of the past.


  7. sbszine

    2 February 2004 at 4.58 pm

    I’m a actually young curmudgeon, but offer the following anyway:

    • PPT is a tool that can be used well or badly. While it is possible to use it well (and perhaps even earn enough doing so to secure a house in a lively ‘hood), the majority examples of PPT that I have seen fall squarely into the bad category.
    • As you powerfully point out, PPT is intended as an electronic blackboard for experienced presenters. Unfortunately, as well as being used for presentations, it is often inappropriately used to distribute information via the web, email, or print media. In these cases it’s usually better to use HTML, text, and professional vector formats respectively.
    • Further, I agree with Tufte that PPT has a ‘cognitive style’ that makes it easy to distort information or make one’s audience tune out. Clip art and transitions spring to mind.
    • Finally, on a biased and subjective note, the whole thing strikes me as a wank for subliterate executives, like Newton’s Cradle or MS Access or ‘team building’ seminars.


  8. d_themorgs

    2 February 2004 at 8.32 pm

    PowerPoint doesn’t kill people–people kill people
    So if something can sometimes be used for good, then I find it hard to classify that thing as evil. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that some users of PowerPoint are evil by how they apply it’s use. Okay–maybe clipart is evil, but I mean, after all, PowerPoint is an inanimate object. It’s a tool. PowerPoint should no more be left in the hands of the unskilled than a chainsaw in the hands of a toddler–it’s dangerous to themselves and everyone around them. But just because some people shouldn’t be allowed to drive doesn’t mean that cars are evil–except for my MG. If there are “features” in PowerPoint that you find horrendous, they are there only as a result of our capitalist system–enough people expressed a need for them that someone filled that need. And no one is putting a gun to anyone’s head and forcing them use clipart and slide transitions. So perhaps we can put this “evilness of PowerPoint” behind us and move on to castigating people who make bad decisions about proclaiming their message.


  9. Red Wolf

    7 February 2004 at 9.52 am

    Bob Cringley has an article about the problems created by users of PowerPoint; Now Hear This.
    Interesting read, seems that people who rely on crutches like PowerPoint are prone to being functionally illiterate, only able to communicate in bullet points and mostly just speak in such utter business double-talk as to be totally useless. This is proven nicely by Doug’s comment, there’s a lot of words getting thrown about, but no cohesive argument.
    Delete PowerPoint from your hard drive and try writing out a proper proposal or talking to an audience for once. We’ll all be better for it


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