I hate PowerPoint (May 19, 2004)

The May Issue of Toastmasters Magazine had several articles about electronic presentations, which in 95% of the cases means PowerPoint presentations. One author (Eric Spellmann) summarizes the viewpoint that I've come to despise. He writes:

PowerPoint also can liven up an otherwise boring topic. In addition to using vibrant text and background colors, presenters can choose from a wide variety of clip art and photos. And when using PowerPoint's animation and sound options, these graphics can shake, rattle and roll.

If your topic is boring, then it won't become less boring by changing your text to a firecracker red, or adding soft clouds in the background, or placing a clip art image of a racer crossing the finish line, or having the new slides spin into place, or playing a cute melody at each slide transition.

Another author (Jerry Weissman) noted that PowerPoint had received a lot of criticism (without mentioning who the critics were) and then claimed that PowerPoint is only a problem when it is used badly. The author should have noted that the main critic is Edward Tufte who claims that the features of PowerPoint itself that predispose you to creating a bad presentation and that criticizing the author is akin to blaming the victim.

If you have not heard of Edward Tufte, you are in for a treat. He wrote three outstanding books on the design of graphics and each of these books is a delight to read.

Edward Tufte has a scathing critique of PowerPoint for sale for $7 and it is worth every penny. Ordering details can be found at http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/powerpoint. Tufte does not mince words. He argues that PowerPoint "actively facilitates the making of lightweight presentations" and quotes a report from the Columbia Accident Investigation Board

"At many points during its investigation, the Board was surprised to receive similar presentation slides from NASA officials in place of technical reports. The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA." (page 15 of http://lfd.streamos.com/caib/report/web/chapters/chapter7.pdf)

Another prominent critic of PowerPoint is Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems who banned PowerPoint at his company in 1997.

Peter Norvig imagined how awful it would be if Abraham Lincoln had to use PowerPoint for the Gettysburg address. It starts with this introduction

"Good morning. Just a second while I get this connection to work. Do I press this button here? Function-F7? No, that's not right. Hmmm. Maybe I'll have to reboot. Hold on a minute. Um, my name is Abe Lincoln and I'm your president. While we're waiting, I want to thank Judge David Wills, chairman of the committee supervising the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery. It's great to be here, Dave, and you and the committee are doing a great job. Gee, sometimes this new technology does have glitches, but we couldn't live without it, could we? Oh - is it ready? OK, here we go:" www.norvig.com/Gettysburg/index.htm

and the whole presentation makes you realize the difference between a truly great speech and the PowerPoint way of speaking. The fourth slide, for example, reads

Review of Key Objective & Critical Success Factors

and you just can feel PowerPoint sucking all the passion out of Lincoln's speech. In contrast, here are the words that Lincoln actually used.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

Is all this criticism of PowerPoint warranted? In a word, yes. PowerPoint offers a lot of features to jazz up your presentation and almost every one of them is bad. PowerPoint will let you transition from one slide to the next using silly graphic tricks. PowerPoint will let you shoot "bullets" into your slide one at a time. PowerPoint will create a clever and distracting background that will make your slides harder to read. PowerPoint has built in animation that is guaranteed to throw off the timing of your speech. PowerPoint also has clipart that does nothing but trivialize the point you are trying to make.

Tufte makes the excellent point that the bullet format of PowerPoint is ugly, distracting, and leads to incoherent statements. Tufte's recommendation is to use a handout. This is the advice he gave back in 1983 a year before PowerPoint was created.

If you have to use PowerPoint, strive for a extreme minimalism. Avoid animation, backgrounds, and clip art. Try to use full sentences with both a subject and a verb. Combine these sentences into paragraphs. Avoid bullets, except for an occasional short lists. Use black letters on a white background, which is far easier to read than any other combination. Use as few slides as you can and spend most of your time talking to your audience.

Ten years ago, I used PowerPoint (or its precursor, the overhead transparency) for all my talks. Today I print off a web page and hand it out to the audience at the start of my talk. I have found this to be liberating, because I no longer fumble at the computer or the overhead projector. I no longer look back over my shoulder to make sure that the slide is displayed properly. I look at my audience instead, which is what you're supposed to do.

Other things I have written about PowerPoint

Other references about PowerPoint

This page was written by Steve Simon while working at Children's Mercy Hospital. Although I do not hold the copyright for this material, I am reproducing it here as a service, as it is no longer available on the Children's Mercy Hospital website. Need more information? I have a page with general help resources. You can also browse for pages similar to this one at Category: Presenting research data.