by Chris Bertram on December 21, 2003

I have a guilty secret: I’m a PowerPoint user. Why do I use PowerPoint? Because it is an easy way to get text and graphics up on a screen to illustrate a lecture. I’m sure there are other and better ways of doing this, but don’t know what they are. I’ve been feeling bad about this since reading some of “Edward Tufte”:http://www.edwardtufte.com/ ‘s anti-PP writings, and my guilt and shame are compounded after reading “John Naughton’s attack on PP in todays’ Observer”:http://observer.guardian.co.uk/business/story/0,6903,1110963,00.html . Sample quote:

bq. As an addiction of the white-collar classes, PowerPoint ranks second only in perniciousness to cocaine.

(Actually I have sometimes wondered whether my lectures would be improved by prior self-medication — a stiff drink perhaps — but have never run the experiment.)

Naughton links to Peter Norvig’s rendering of the “Gettysburg address in PowerPoint”:http://www.norvig.com/Gettysburg — funny and effective.

Incidentally, this reminds me of Oliver Jensen’s “The Gettysburg Address in Eisenhowese” from Dwight Macdonald’s “Parodies: An Anthology from Chaucer to Beerbohm–And After”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0306802392/junius-20 which begins thus:

bq. I haven’t checked these figures, but 87 years ago, I think it was, a number of individuals organized a governmental set-up here in this country, I believe it covered certain Eastern areas, with this idea they were following up based on a sort of national independence arrangement and the program that every individual is just as good as every other individual. Well, now, of course, we are dealing with this big difference of opinion, civil disturbance you might say, although I don’t like to appear to take sides or name any individuals….



Vance Maverick 12.21.03 at 1:41 pm

Norvig’s joke is amusing enough. However, Lincoln was speaking in a situation where everyone was already moved by a powerful occasion; where they already knew the sort of thing he was going to say; and his only chance of making an impact lay in finding a memorable way of saying it.

By contrast, when I speak to a group of fellow computer scientists, they are interested only in new information I might give them. They are inclined to be bored by the occasion, and they don’t care whether I speak in well-made sentences. (Many of them, indeed, don’t speak my language very well, so graces of verbal construction would largely be wasted.) I do all I can to keep their attention on the scrap of novelty I have to offer, and that includes PowerPoint.

(By the way, the criticism that slides can be misleading — see Naughton’s retelling of the NASA slide story — is completely irrelevant. Unless, of course, they can be shown to be more misleading than some alternate style of presentation—which he doesn’t try to do.)


jam 12.21.03 at 2:17 pm

“Why do I use PowerPoint? Because it is an easy way to get text and graphics up on a screen to illustrate a lecture. I’m sure there are other and better ways of doing this, but don’t know what they are.”

The last time I saw Dennis Shasha (he’s at NYU, or was then) speak, he used web pages. He scrolled or followed hyperlinks as he talked.

It’s unfair to blame PowerPoint, though. Most people are terrible at public speaking. Their slides reflect this. The slides aren’t there for their audience. They’re there for themselves. Speakers who don’t think about their audience aren’t going to communicate well, whatever tool they use.


David Sucher 12.21.03 at 4:31 pm

I have never used Power Point (though I just bought a copy of Apple’s Keynote) but I am not persuaded by either Tufte or now Naughton. If you read Tufte carefully, I think you’ll find his argument factually shallow. Of course PP can be mis-used — such as to present a final report as PowerPoint document — only! which apparently is what the NASA people did. The very idea is so preposterous that it should hardly need condemnation; if NASA did it then it should be roundly condemned. But don’t blame the tool for misuse of it by the craftsman. PowerPoint is for presentations — it is not designed — to think of it in functional software terms — to replace Word and Excel.

Please see Is PowerPoint also a moral issue?


Chris Marcil 12.21.03 at 7:57 pm

For those who want more of this thing, there’s also Daniel Radosh’s PowerPoint Anthology of American Literature:



Erik 12.21.03 at 10:03 pm

Of course, a lot of what Tufte is talking about is the abuse of Powerpoint, especially the “AutocContent Wizards” (according to Tufte, one of the few products that explicitly mocks its costumers). Tufte makes two valid points though. The first is that the standardization of presentations limits free thinking (although his comparison with Stalin is stretching it). If we think that slides with three bullet-points just look the best, it is not unlikely that we will adjust our presentations to fit that mold.

The second point is the low resolution of powerpoint, especially for statistical presentations. I have actually been surprised by how much more information you can convey on a handout than in a PowerPoint presentation.


David Sucher 12.22.03 at 2:11 am

As somewhat of an aside, Erik’s first example echoes traditional rhetorical & poetic technique — to offer “threes.” Two is not enough, four is too many, three is just right.

So perthaps if “3 bullet-points” is common in PP, it is not because of the program but because of something more deeply-rooted in human expression?

I don’t mean to limit Erik’s overall point but it’s interesting that the first example offered (of how PP might limit thinking) harkens back to something we’ve been doing for many centuries before Bill Gate’ birth.


John Q 12.22.03 at 5:22 am

This is very like the criticisms of word processors that used to be (and maybe are) still made. Start with the constraint that someone has to deliver a talk, with some sort of documentary record, and that someone else has to listen to it.

An adequate PowerPoint presentation can be produced a lot more easily than a written paper. But during the time devoted to getting a written paper into presentable shape, there are many more occasions to think about the substantive content. The same is true in spades if the paper has to go through several typed or handwritten drafts rather than being put together on a wordprocessor.

So listeners will prefer a speaker who produces a written paper then speaks to it*. In the absence of a big incentive to given an excellent rather than an adequate talk, however, speakers will prefer the quick and dirty Powerpoint solution.

* Of course, reading a paper aloud is even worse than the worst PP


Thersites 12.22.03 at 8:12 am

The worst abuse of Power Point occurs in our nation’s schools. This is of course where the most egregious abuses of any sort of technology occur. Where are the earth’s most nefarious Sloppy Joes constructed, for instance?

I’ve known college freshmen and freshwomen who could set up a wonderful Power Point presentation but could not find their way home without checking the address stencilled into the band of their underpants.

Thus, obviously, I have no idea why it is so hard to scan the information written upon one’s underpants into Power Point.


Bob 12.22.03 at 8:44 pm

My first year of teaching a big lecture course, I got a course evaluation that amounted to a two-page treatise on the proper way to compose a Powerpoint presentation. Not from a Tufte-reader, mind you, but by a guy who’d recently gotten himself out of management consulting but couldn’t, apparently, get management consulting out of himself. It was like a recipe for pissing off Tufte and putting an entire lecture hall to sleep: simple screens, each designed to tell (rather than offer) a small piece of information (instead of a concept or question) to an audience member.

Powerpoint should be abolished, not because of any inherent evil, but because it’s what an entire generation of professionals (of whatever stripe) has come to mistake for clarity.


David Sucher 12.22.03 at 11:48 pm

I can’t quite get what the fuss is all about but as I am just about to “port” over portions a book to Keynote I be able to judge for myself. (I assume that Bob’s comment goes for Apple’s Keynote as well.)

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