Powerpoint is evil?

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?

Oh by the way heres the New york times arcticle which started the debate off again after wired. Oh and dave's copy on his blog, but he has no comments so people been emailing instead.

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Author: Ianforrester

Senior firestarter at BBC R&D, emergent technology expert and serial social geek event organiser.