I wrote this blog a while back in August. It included a link to edward tuffe's arcticle about why powerpoint was evil. But recently Dave has been emailing comments around to me and Miles. I decided to sit this one out, but some very interesting comments and ideas have been bounced around.
Emailed from Miles
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 or graphically assisted communication is a bad thing, and, 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: http://www.apple.com/keynote/ ... 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, which demanded immediacy, and is not well suited to the delivery of lectures, encouraged 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 television's doing (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, and produced 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?). To be sure, politics has always been about sloganising - wrapping a complex idea into a memorable phrase ("votes for women", "peace in our time", "liberty, equality, fraternity"), but, behind the slogans there used to be complex political ideas. Nowadays, political parties don't have policies as such, they 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 battles have been won, but because there are no big ideas anymore. PPT has achieved the same result for 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, archives, &c. The teacher was merely presenting 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. This is why I got nervous about ohps (on reflection). 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 were 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, 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.
I keep meaning to reply to Miles but always seem to run out of bus time when writing my email on the ipaq into work. Miles raises some interesting ideas through out the email message. Kinda of hits the core of why presentations are enherently bad, just like the soundbite and slogans. How do you explain to a audience complex ideas in a set of bullet points and a 45mins talk?
Just reflecting personally, I tend to write my presentations in tagged pdf format and include lots of information which I dont read in the presentation. So when the audience gets a copy or requests a copy it contains lots more than I explained. But is this enough I ask?