"Bad Language"

A column about writing in business

PowerPoint: Is it Evil?

You've probably heard the PowerPoint jokes. You know: "Death by PowerPoint," and "power corrupts, but PowerPoint corrupts absolutely." It certainly gets a lot of stick. It also has some surprising defenders. (Full disclosure: Microsoft is a client of mine but I don't work for the PowerPoint team.)

For example, Edward Tufte, author the beautifully named Beautiful Evidence, wrote a blistering article in Wired titled PowerPoint is Evil. Not exactly a neutral point of view. He said "The standard PowerPoint presentation elevates format over content, betraying an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch." He also complains that it reduces data to meaningless infoporn with little statistical validity.

My favorite PowerPoint parody is the Gettysburg PowerPoint Presentation. This was created automagically by the program's auto-content wizard. It's priceless. My favorite bit is the "Review of Key Objectives & Critical Success Factors."

What makes nation unique

  1. Conceived in Liberty
  2. Men are equal

Shared vision

  1. New birth of freedom
  2. Gov't of/for/by the people

Garr Reynolds, author of the Presentation Zen, doesn't criticize but he does argue that PowerPoint is a blank canvas on which the presenter reveals his own personality. He attacks the concept that PowerPoint is evil at the same time as poking fun at a typical deck. He contrasts the Zen-like Yoda's analogue presentation style with Darth Vader's "Together we can bring order to the galaxy" slide.

If PowerPoint is a medium in its own right, as Reynolds implies, where is its art? David Byrne's book Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information is one attempt at art.ppt. Perhaps there are other examples. If it can be used to make art, even post-modern, ironic, cultural meta-criticism, then it can be used for anything.

Here's my own view. I use it. I prefer pictures to text in presentations because my voice suppliers the word power. I work hard on my speeches - my wife is an actress and theatre director and she rehearses me. I want people to concentrate on me, not the screen. But some things are better said in pictures. I wrote a post a while back on Bad Language arguing that, sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

There is definitely an art to writing for speaking. It involves the control of pace and suspense. The script needs to sound like you when you talk, but more intelligent and more concise. Ten dollar words have no place at all. It's also important to appear human - stories, personal insights, wit (if possible). Learning the material and rehearsing it is the way to get past stage fright and obsession with the process. If you are working with a slide show, making sure the technology is set up and working properly well before you start is critical.

I respect, but don't always follow, Guy Kawasaki's 10/20/30 rule ("a PowerPoint presentation should have ten slides, last no more than twenty minutes, and contain no font smaller than thirty points.") The point about time is especially important. As Churchill said: "The mind cannot absorb more than the seat can endure." Numbness is the product of PowerPoint, not evil.


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Columnist Matthew Stibbe is Writer-in-chief for Articulate Marketing, a specialist copywriting agency. His clients include Microsoft, the British Government and leading magazines like Wired and Popular Science. Matthew also writes a blog called Bad Language. Click here to read more articles by Matthew Stibbe.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday September 21st 2006, 9:47 AM
Comment by: Robert R.
Boy am I tired of hearing about is PowerPoint Bad/Good. Any tool can be bad or good depending on how it is used. It is a superb tool for organizing and displaying detailed data and intricate rationales which lead to concise outcomes. Unfortunately the people who need to use it for this purpose generally aren't writers or designers and the resulting presentation is therefore badly designed, cumbersome and boring. To accentuate the problem the Mac version is inferior to the PC version - so even if the material makes it to the hands of a designer (who undoubtedly will be using a Mac), the poor designer will be using a substandard version of the program.

It is not evil, it's just not optimal.
Friday September 22nd 2006, 1:14 AM
Comment by: Mark G.
I'm in branding and use PowerPoint a lot. I think you need to see it (and use it) as a tool. That it forces us to condense things is both good and bad of course, but (in a way) quite a good discipline. And - one can insert within it anything one wants. The limitations are, I believe, ultimately those of the users themeselves.
Monday October 16th 2006, 10:45 PM
Comment by: Mike W.
I have to agree with most of what you've included above, sadly. As a Certified Interpreter for the Deaf in just about every setting you can imagine in the city of St. Louis, I have seen some of the most crutch-like uses of Powerpoint. So much so that while the detail provides the students I interpreted for much more detail than they might have retained from "watching", they just ask the presenter for their file and suddenly they have all that they wanted to learn from what was provided them during the event.

I agree it is a great tool, but rather than be used to make masterpeices, it is all too often an axe on balsa wood.
Tuesday November 7th 2006, 4:07 AM
Comment by: richard S.
If the discussion is about the value of presentation tools (rather than about specific software functions), then try to remember this before facile criticisms: most business audiences have a lower attention span than a primary school class. It is usual for "teachers" of complex subjects to address "classes" of people from varying professional disciplines, languages, competences and agttention spans. Any graphic visual aid is positive and can be decisive in delivering a message, lesson or briefing. Good graphics do not replace good argument, but most business communication would be weaker without PowerPoint (Lotus Freelance was better but gone now)
Wednesday December 6th 2006, 4:18 PM
Comment by: Lisa F.
There are no "evil" software tools, only "evil" users...
No seriously. I agree with Garr Reynolds, "... the presenter reveals his own personality." Unfortunately stupidity is the personality trait that is revealed.

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