The perils of Powerpoint

by Chris Bertram on March 6, 2007

Jo Wolff’s “Guardian column today”:,,2027064,00.html is all about the limitations and dangers of using Powerpoint (a subject “I’ve discussed before”: ). In a spasm of anti-Microsoftness, I used “S5”: in my lectures this year but eventually gave up because of the sheer hassle of doing anything other than bullet points with it – Powerpoint just worked better (as does Impress, btw). Jo’s key complaint, though, is about what PP does for spontaneity:

bq. For those who prefer to project the idea that a talk is a unique event, a voyage of discovery that could go in any one of a number of directions, and may well go in all of them, PowerPoint gives the game away. As someone once said: “The art is hiding the art.” With PowerPoint, everything is on display. Elegantly effortless performance is hard enough as it is. PowerPoint makes it impossible.

I don’t know how Jo does his lectures, but one thing it is pretty hard to get away without (given student expectations and all that) is the _handout_ . And once you’ve given them a handout then they either know where you’re going or you’ll confuse the hell out of them if you go somewhere else. How does Powerpoint make things any worse in this respect?

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The PowerPoint Thing at Jacob Christensen
03.06.07 at 7:10 pm



Kelly 03.06.07 at 7:29 am

You know, maybe it’s just me, but as a student, audience member, and even teacher, I loathe powerpoint presentations that are simply the exact same thing, word for word, as the speaker is saying. If someone is just going to read to me, I’d rather take the paper to a coffeeshop and read it on my own.

I appreciate presentations, enhanced or not, that are flexible and feel natural. My former adviser was amazing at this – he had his class presentation material together, handouts and powerpoints, yet always managed to also be spontaneous, discussing things relevent to but not on the slides themselves. The slides were like the lecture handouts – a guide to what we should know, a visual cue to what he was talking about. But neither, in themselves, were the whole of the class lecture, and you couldn’t have a copy of either/both and get the same material (good for making sure people actually came to class, too).


bi 03.06.07 at 7:42 am

One of my lecturers had a series of slides (done using LaTeX, I think) with something close to bullet points, and a totally different set of handouts which looks more like a chapter from a book. That probably requires more effort to do, though.


fjm 03.06.07 at 7:58 am

If you are on a Mac, Keynote is wonderful because you an upload things so incredibly easy. I use it for images or texts I actually want to critique so that students/audiences can follow the process.


ingrid 03.06.07 at 8:18 am

The problem is not powerpoint, the problem is how some people use powerpoint. If you use powerpoint just to outline the structure of your lecture, and to write down some key definitions, and perhaps also use it to show some key graphs etc. (for the empirical social scientists), then it can be a very useful tool. You don’t have to look at your notes on paper (at least not all the time), and hence you can talk through rather than read your lecture. Moreover, it’s easy to earn powerpoint very quickly, which is always a plus for time-deprived academics. Hence I really fail to appreciate why so many people complain about powerpoint in general, rather than about some particular use of it.


derek 03.06.07 at 8:23 am

If you’re prepared to be as Tuf as Tufte, you could do what he does: pass out the handout, then instruct the audience to read it in silence, while you wait for them to finish before you begin to talk to them. You then talk to them about the handout they’ve just read.

You may use a slide show, but the slides will not be the same presentation as the handout, but a complement to it, a whole second document of its own. You don’t give anyone the slide show; if there was anything in it they needed to have, you’d have put in in the handout too (or the handout alone). They may scribble notes about what they see in the slide show, or hear from you, on the handout you’ve given them, but you don’t hand out your presentation. They leave with the handouts, and the memory of your discussion.

What’s that you ask? Why, no, I haven’t yet had the courage to try this myself :-)


derek 03.06.07 at 8:34 am

ingrid, that’s the classic defence of PP, that it can’t be responsible for anything bad about a presentation. To me, that abdication of responsibility is the greatest possible condemnation of the software, not a defence. If it doesn’t facilitate a better presentation than the speaker could have written on transparencies with a packet of coloured pens, or composed using a versatile word processor, then transferred to slides, then it is a piece of software that offers no added value.

Which raises the question, if it wasn’t bundled into MSOffice with the word processor and the spreadsheet, two applications that have value, would anyone pay hundreds of dollars to acquire it as a stand-alone?


william 03.06.07 at 9:40 am

Derek: If it doesn’t facilitate a better presentation than the speaker could have written on transparencies with a packet of coloured pens, or composed using a versatile word processor, then transferred to slides, then it is a piece of software that offers no added value.

A Powerpoint presentation that I do will be better than one I did with coloured pens, as it’ll be neater. It’ll be better than one I do with a word processor and transfer to slides, as it’ll take me less time to accomplish the purely mechanical parts of making the slides and leave me freer to think about structure.

In general, I’m of the opposite opinion to what you say here: To me, that abdication of responsibility is the greatest possible condemnation of the software, not a defence. A more flexible tool is more useful, because it facilitates uses that the designers didn’t originally think of. A tool that doesn’t require a particular approach to producing a presentation is better, because it doesn’t require you to have the right mindset before you start.

Granted, these tools are then more open to abuse. But I’ve seen extremely bad presentations prepared with pen and transparencies too, and they were harder to read.


william 03.06.07 at 9:45 am

Having said that, there clearly are risks in getting carried away. I recently spent three hours putting together an animation for a Powerpoint presentation, and then found (when I had to remove the animation because I was giving the presentation again and it had to be saved as PDF) that when I only used a few selected frames from the animation the presentation as a whole was much improved. But I still think the lesson is to use the bells and whistles wisely, not that there shouldn’t be bells and whistles at all.


william 03.06.07 at 9:49 am

And finally…

For those who prefer to project the idea that a talk is a unique event, a voyage of discovery that could go in any one of a number of directions, and may well go in all of them, PowerPoint gives the game away.

There are a lot of contexts where it’s more appropriate to project the idea that you had worked out what you were going to say before you started speaking.


sanbikinoraion 03.06.07 at 9:51 am

I think you’re the one who’s being harsh, Derek. Look at Javascript and Flash – two technologies that were ridiculed for a long time because people simply didn’t know how to use them properly. Now, as time has passed, people have figured out how to use JS in a way that’s not annoying, and are working on Flash as well (which suffers the disadvantage of being available to advertisers).

The problem is fusty old academics who don’t care about learning the technology, and/or whose lecturing technique would be poor in any other circumstances, likely because they don’t actually give a toss about teaching.

If they cared, they would read a few articles on the web about “how to use powerpoint” most of which are filled with eminently sensible tips like “don’t write your entire presentation onto them”.

In short: guns don’t kill people, rappers do.


sanbikinoraion 03.06.07 at 9:52 am

Incidentally, this is the academic version of Mac vs PC. Let it go, guys.


derek 03.06.07 at 10:06 am

sanbikinoraion, that’s just “they laughed at Galileo”. You give examples of javascript and Flash, but give no examples of the “killer application” of Powerpoint, instead asking the readers to take it on faith that one will appear some day in the future. You say PP is Galileo, I say it’s Bozo the Clown.


Chris Williams 03.06.07 at 10:24 am

Anyone who takes the piss out of powerpoint, or any other presentation software, per se, has never dropped a box of slides. Or welded an acetate to a copier drum. Or had a Multiple Transparency Anxiety attack.


bi 03.06.07 at 10:33 am

Eh, the Flash example doesn’t even hold. Early versions of Flash had no interactive capability whatsoever; it was only starting from v2 that Flash had sound capability; text edit boxes came in only during v4; and it wasn’t until v5 that Flash had full scripting capability. Just because people can do fun stuff with newer versions of Flash doesn’t mean that early versions of Flash didn’t indeed suck.

Similarly, PowerPoint might become equally useful if M$ adds more useful features to it in the future, but that’s not exactly a defence of the _present_ incarnations of PowerPoint.


Colin Powell 03.06.07 at 11:13 am

I think Powerpoint is a wonderful tool and I use it often to enhance my credibility on the world stage.


George Williams 03.06.07 at 12:22 pm

Chris writes, “Jo’s key complaint, though, is about what PP does for spontaneity.”

Take a look at CounterPoint

CounterPoint is a zooming presentation tool that acts as a plugin to PowerPoint. It allows you to arrange your PowerPoint slides on a zooming canvas… CounterPoint also provides the capability to create multiple scripted paths through your spatial slide arrangements. Presentations created in CounterPoint are also interactive, so you can deviate from a scripted path at presentation-time based on audience feedback, time constraints, or other factors.

I’ve never used it, but I’ve seen it demonstrated. Looks like a good way to get at the spontaneity that PP locks you out of.


Russell Arben Fox 03.06.07 at 12:53 pm

I don’t even usually give handouts in my classes. Make them follow what I write on the board, I say.


Matt 03.06.07 at 1:20 pm

The solution to this problem is to do what I do, which is to not have your lecture ready until just before class. It’s especially good if you can finish it on the bus ride to the university and then can’t read your own notes because of the even worse than normal hand-writting from the bouncing of the bus. If you’re desperately finishing your lecture on the way to give it you have no time to think about powerpoint or handouts or anything but pleanty of chance to be “spontaneous”. (I suppose if you’ve given your lectures more times than I have then this is harder to do.)


J. Ellenberg 03.06.07 at 1:40 pm

I’m with 16. Really, none of you guys write on the blackboard? In addition to the flexibility that CB desires, it has the excellent feature of physically forcing you not to go too fast.


Antti Nannimus 03.06.07 at 1:46 pm


Richard Feynman on bullets during the Challenger investigation: “Then we learned about ‘bullets’; little black circles in front of phrases that were supposed to summarize things. There was one after another of these little goddamn bullets in our briefing books and on the slides.”

Have a nice day,


Steve LaBonne 03.06.07 at 2:54 pm

As a scientist I’ve never quite understood the point of showing slides at all with a talk except for the purpose of displaying data. Even back in the slide-projector Stone Age I hated seminar speakers who had more than about one slide containing only text (sometimes not just bullet points but, God help us, entire paragraphs.) I mean, I’m not so stupid that I can’t follow and retain what you’re saying; I need a visual aid only when there’s inescapably visual information to be conveyed.


Matt Weiner 03.06.07 at 3:23 pm

none of you guys write on the blackboard?

In really big rooms this isn’t always feasible (there are some technical issues about one of my classrooms that affect this), but in smaller rooms I pretty much always do this.

I’m not so stupid that I can’t follow and retain what you’re saying

I do find that having something to look at helps me follow and retain.


Ken Clarkson 03.06.07 at 3:24 pm

If you have a fair amount of math notation in your talk, then S5 together with asciimathml is a reasonable solution: more convenient that powerpoint for the math, even with texpoint. An obvious alternative is a LaTeX document class for slides, especially using the Beamer package: better formatting, and a running outline in the header. However, for sheer all-around open-sourcedness, nothing beats S5+asciimathml: unlike Adobe reader, Firefox is open-source, so even the best presentation tool is open. There’s been some talk of extending NVU (a WYSIWYG editor for html) to edit S5-style talks; when that happens, and editing of SVG graphics is included, then maybe we’ll be in open-source, open-format heaven for making overly complicated slides.


djw 03.06.07 at 3:28 pm

I don’t know how Jo does his lectures, but one thing it is pretty hard to get away without (given student expectations and all that) is the handout . And once you’ve given them a handout then they either know where you’re going or you’ll confuse the hell out of them if you go somewhere else. How does Powerpoint make things any worse in this respect?

The handout is some sort of mysterious document with an ambigious relationship to the lecture–is it an outline? Background information? The powerpoint slides are more directly connected to the lecture content.

I’ve been experimenting this term with “free” lecturing–no powerpoint or handouts, occasionally writing something on the board but basically just talking. Generally, I’m rated by students as a pretty good lecturer, but this term I’m getting better reviews than usual, along with a conviction that it would be even better if I had slides.


Chris Bertram 03.06.07 at 3:35 pm

none of you guys write on the blackboard?

In my institution they removed all the blackboards on “health and safety” grounds ….


geoff 03.06.07 at 5:13 pm

@4 – I agree completely. If people are willing to invest a little extra time in structuring their presentations, PowerPoint has the advantage of:

– Being neater and more legible than handwriting
– Easily creating fairly complex graphics and charts
– Being easily distributable
– Occuring before you actually need it, thus consuming no actual presentation time in writing

The blackboard (or whiteboard) is all well and good, but it’s tough to read (especially in a crowded, large lecture hall), time-consuming, and requires you to think on the spot, often leading to the realization that you’ve missed a key point after the presentation.

@6 – I don’t buy this line of argument any more than I accept the proposition that a hammer is responsible for poor architecture. A tool helps you perform a defined task more easily. It doesn’t substitute for thought and planning and it’s not supposed to. In the same vein, PowerPoint is design to help you convey your ideas more effectively, but you still need to think about it.


jim 03.06.07 at 5:57 pm

For those who haven’t seen it, the nadir of powerpoint.


Jacob Christensen 03.06.07 at 6:28 pm

@27: Hilarious :-D

We should also note that the presenter is making the oh-so-fundamental error of addressing the screen instead of the audience.


Steve LaBonne 03.06.07 at 7:00 pm

Not real-life like #27, but this well-known satire is more eloquent than anything I could say against Powerpoint:


loren 03.06.07 at 7:27 pm

Not much to add: I agree that powerpoint (and other multimedia packages) can be used effectively to balance spontaneity and random badgering of students — er, socratic techniques, on the one hand, with structure and intuitive presentation of data, on the other.

In my big introductory political science class, I use the Scott-Popkin debate on peasant rebellions as a good example of a constructive social-scientific debate, and I have to say, it’s really great to be able to integrate historical maps of Southeast Asia into a presentation that outlines the main points of dispute in that debate.

I thought Laura had a good discussion of this over at 11d a short while back. I’ll add something I posted there: depending on the room you have, I find that lectures combining logical and mathematical formalism with spontaneious elaborations and digressions can be done well with a combination of powerpoint and an old fashioned blackboard (or whiteboard), even for a big audience.

I do a segment in that intro class on decision and game theory, and for math-phobic arts students I find it’s really useful to have a powerpoint slide above the blackboard outlining the core concepts and key intuitions that I can then present formally on the blackboard below.

I also do a segment on Clifford Geertz and interpretation (“thick description” and “notes on the Balinese cockfight”) with no slides or visuals at all – strictly old school. But if I ever manage to find a (fundable) reason to get to Bali, you can bet I’ll post lots of beach and surf pics in the background for future versions of that lecture … another use for powerpoint.


Tracy W 03.06.07 at 9:22 pm

And I do realise that there must be a perverse sort of pleasure in whipping away the slide just before the students could possibly have managed to copy it down. It might be one of the few kicks that never fades. Only that could explain why it is so common.

I had a lecturer at university who once wrote an equation on the whiteboard, turned around on the spot with his back to the equation covering it, talked about the equation, then turned around again (on the spot) and rubbed the equation off. I don’t think Powerpoint is essential for this particular kick.

As for the benefits of powerpoint – I find it highly valuable when talking about data. For example, put up a graph showing relationship between the model and the data for the in-sample data. Then do a reveal and show the remainder of the graph showing the relationship between the model and the out-of-sample data.

Or build up a graph bit by bit, talking about each situation as you flick it up. Things like: this is a standard supply-demand curve. But if we can turn demand off when prices get high we get this demand curve, which has this impact on price.


Laura 03.06.07 at 11:35 pm

I wrote a post about powerpoint power a month ago which included useful comments by loren and russell. I was pretty skeptical about its use, but I thought I would give it a shot. It has come in very handy in my media class. I can put up the picture of dead servicemen in caskets and talk about its impact. Much more effective than just talking about it. Now that we’re talking about blogs, I’ve been able to quickly move from Instapundit to Tapped. In my public policy class, I was able to show the latest poll information about the public’s growing interest in universal health care and even show the short video from the Times on their findings. That’s been super cool. I also have made text-only slides with definitions.

I’m dead set against using powerpoint for the theory class next fall.

The pros and cons: The students like it. And I need their good recommendations, so that’s important. It forces me to give more organized lectures. It does kill some spontaneity. I go through material faster, which can be a bad thing (more prep work). It takes more time to make the stupid slides and find the images.


Jo Wolff 03.07.07 at 12:19 am

Just got in rather late. I went to two presentations today. At the first one, we waited for 10 minutes for the technician to arrive only to tell the speaker that the computer he was using did not have the right user privileges to recognise the USB stick on which the powerpoint presentation was loaded. He took the stick away. The speaker then gave the presentation without slides, saying how wonderful they would have been. Just when the talk ended the technician came in with a CD onto which he had saved the ppt presentation. So we then sat through the presentation a second time, just looking at the slides at breakneck speed. You may think I am making this up but I can assure you I am not. I have witnesses.

The second presentation – from my colleague Tim Crane – used powerpoint beautifully not only to show us lots of pictures of philosophers but to allow us to read the quotes he was using. And the presentation worked perfectly.

To answer Chris’s question, I sometimes use short handouts, it is true, especially when I am giving a public lecture. On such occasions much of the magic is gone, I have to admit, even though I do still ad lib a bit (for some reason I find myself unable to read out a pre-written text).

In my classes I very rarely give out handouts, even though the students from time to time ask for them. Lecturing in political philosophy, I don’t need maps, graphs or, most of the time, numbers (if I do, I then use handouts) But I have a killer statistic to quell the demand for handouts somewhat. In preparations for Subject Review a few years ago I found out that the more elaborate the handouts for a lecture course the fewer first class marks there were for that paper. Of course it is a very small sample and there could be other explanations, but the one time I used extensive handouts I found that in the final exam I was essentially reading my handouts back again from almost every student. So I haven’t used them again.

What I try to do is look at students when I lecture to see if they are following. If some of them look baffled I try to make the point another way. And then I make it again anyway, just to make sure. When I make several arguments for a point, I say ‘the first argument is …; the second argument is … ‘ and then I recap to make sure that everyone who wanted to write it down has managed. Boring though this sounds, the students seem happy enough, on the whole.


novakant 03.07.07 at 12:44 am

I think the problem isn’t powerpoint but people buying into the whole bulletpoint / slideshow narrative structure bunk – devil’s in the details.


dr ngo 03.07.07 at 1:13 am

Handouts? We don’t need no steenkin’ handouts!

(It had to be said.)


Georgiana 03.07.07 at 2:21 am

I agree with the PowerPoint is neater (and anyone who has suffered through my handwriting is grateful indeed to the software gods). And it is most excellent for data graphs and presentations, especially layering the graph in to follow the presentation. HOWEVER, most PP presentations I’ve been subjected to involve someone who spent so much time tweaking the slides, inserting so many visuals that the slides are unreadable beyond 10 feet, that the presenter never got around to well, practicing the speech. Now in academia, the balance may be different, but in the workaday world, powerpoint is a curse because the pretty pictures are the record, not the actual speech.


loren 03.07.07 at 4:02 am

“… If some of them look baffled I try to make the point another way.”

Completely unrelated to powerpoint and handouts (I think), but for some reason when I read this I recalled an earlier take on the phenomenon Jo describes …

“While I was still doubful as to his ability, I asked G. E. Moore for his opinion. Moore replied, `I think very well of him indeed’. When I enquired the reason for his opinion, he said that it was because Wittgenstein was the only man who looked puzzled at his lectures.” – Russell, Mind 60 (July 1951)


Thom Brooks 03.07.07 at 9:38 am

Well, I entirely agree with Jo’s column. I normally use overheads and have scribbled on blackboards in those few lecture theatres on campus that they can be found—and I’m greatly amused to learn that Bristol removed them on health and safety grounds…

In essence, I’ve found using PowerPoint to be akin to dropping nerve gas on students. The lights are dimmed, tired and weary students (many working jobs in addition to their studies) quickly consider just lying their head on a table for a few minutes, and the lecturer is off speaking to a large screen rather than the audience. When used well, it works great—and I do use it on occasion—but it is often used very poorly.

The worst I’ve seen was a presentation at a recent graduate conference a few years ago when I was finishing my Ph.D. The talk was on the benefits of computer-assisted learning: a true warning that the speaker knew nothing about it. We had a senior academic (employed at the university holding the event) walk up to the podium to load his PowerPoint presentation (after two graduate students gave a successful PowerPoint show moments before) only to then click “Start” and then “Shut Down” before our baffled eyes….as he told us how important it was to become computer literate and how his research demonstrated “the learning experience” (whatever this is) was improved, etc. and chiefly using PowerPoint.

Needless to say, the computer then turned off with a loud bang and he was overheard saying, “What just happened?” (A student nearby said quietly, “You’ve bloody turned the computer off.”) We had to wait for a technician to come in as this poor fellow didn’t know how to turn the computer back on. (Like with Jo, I have witnesses.) He then begins speaking for about ten minutes being told how wonderful his presentation is as the technician works away, entering and leaving and re-entering the room. Finally, the computer springs to life and the PowerPoint slides ready to go: all 64 or so of them (and for a talk that was to be no longer than 20 minutes). The rest of the show was a blur as this poor fellow thought it wise to show us all 64 slides he spent all night preparing. It was insane.

The truth is in the percentages. We’ve all been to bad lectures. The chance that a PowerPoint presentation will go bad is far greater than other forms of presentation. For this reason, I particularly dislike watching others’ PowerPoint shows. I do use it occasionally—surely I’ll do better, right?—but only occasionally.


Matt 03.07.07 at 2:34 pm

When I attend a talk (but not a class lecture, usually) I like to get a hand-out, much more than I like to see a PP presentation for the simple reason that I can scribble notes on the handout and it’s easy to make them relate to the particular points on the handout. And if the talk is boring you can draw on the handout and still look like you’re taking notes. I also must say that I find the “quote w/ picture of philosopher” method fairly annoying (though not as annoying as most of the other graphics used in PP). It’s a bit insulting, as if I need to be entertained or tricked with photos. Maybe it’s good for undergrads but is obnoxious for professional talks, I think. (Of coure, if a graphic is actually important it should be used, but most are just filler or a substitute for having something interesting to say.)


Max 03.07.07 at 3:30 pm

It’s about presentation Zen. Less is more. Slides are visual cues. Handouts shouldn’t be copies of slides, they should contain the key points plus discussion. Presentations/talks should be something interesting themselves.

And more.


nick s 03.07.07 at 3:39 pm

I’ve been listening to podcast lectures, where it appears that the Undergraduate Kids of Today Who Don’t Know They’re Born get to play with their laptops — I mean, get the handouts from the course website. But I follow the lectures fine without any of the visual accoutrements.

I generally hate handouts, too, unless they’re tightly bound up with the content: I’d sooner download sources later. I’m going to sound like a fusty tweedy type, but are students/attendees really incapable of coping with lectures unless they’re multimedia extravaganzas that feed? I don’t think so, and suspect that some of it’s bound up with a lack of confidence in focusing the attention of the audience.

It’s all about the topic and the audience and the room, of course, and I’m just speaking with my EngLit hat on, not my tech hat.

Eventually, there will be interfaces to presentation tools that are intuitive and free-form. (For the moment, it’s left to professors with clued-up assistants and large media libraries.) But for the moment, I’ll lean towards the Lessig approach.

Needless to say, the computer then turned off with a loud bang and he was overheard saying, “What just happened?” (A student nearby said quietly, “You’ve bloody turned the computer off.”)

Jeff Bezos did that at Etech a few years back. Very amusing.


Sk 03.07.07 at 7:06 pm

“And once you’ve given them a handout then they either know where you’re going or you’ll confuse the hell out of them if you go somewhere else. How does Powerpoint make things any worse in this respect?”

It doesn’t. But handouts aren’t owned by Microsoft, and Power Point is. And its more hip to hate Microsoft than to hate paper mills. Thus Power Point is worse.



Chris Lott 03.10.07 at 12:38 am

Most of my presentation slides are single images, words, or phrases. I never read from the screen and rarely even use bullets to synopsize. Powerpoint and Keynote are great for these kinds of slides– they handle the scaling and sequencing far better than any other solution.

I’m glad someone else has noted that S5– while fulfilling my anti Microsoft feelings– is very clunky for anything other than simple bullet point slides, which are one of the two worst types of slide one can rely on!

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