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PowerPoint Does Rocket Science--and Better Techniques for Technical Reports

-- Edward Tufte

How to make engineers write concisely with sentences? By combining journalism with the technical report format. In a newspaper article, the paragraphs are ordered by importance, so that the reader can stop reading the article at whatever point they lose interest, knowing that the part they have read was more important than the part left unread.

State your message in one sentence. That is your title. Write one paragraph justifying the message. That is your abstract. Circle each phrase in the abstract that needs clarification or more context. Write a paragraph or two for each such phrase. That is the body of your report. Identify each sentence in the body that needs clarification and write a paragraph or two in the appendix. Include your contact information for readers who require further detail.

-- William A. Wood (email)

Will Microsoft improve PP?

The record for incremental reform in the cognitive style of PowerPoint is not promising. In the many release versions of PP, the intellectual level has not been raised. New releases have drifted toward ingrown self-parody, featuring ever more elaborated PP Phluff and presenter therapy. These changes have made the new version different from the previous version, but not smarter. There are no incentives for meaningful change in a monopoly product with an 86% gross profit margin, only incentives to make it different, somehow, from the previous release. PP competes only with itself.

-- Edward Tufte

Unfortunately, NASA is not re-evaluating the use of PowerPoint, instead, the "MINIMUM INTEROPERABILITY SOFTWARE SUITE" requires all federal employees and contractors employed at NASA centers to have a current version of MS Office installed on their desktop computer. Back of the envelope cost*: $13,200,000 every time a new version comes out. Appropriately, the justification for these standards is contained in a PP presentation.

For masochists: http://desktop-standards.nasa.gov/

* 60,000 on-center employees X $220/upgrade = $13,200,000

-- Robert Simmon (email)

NOAA hurricane reports better than PP

Here's a counterpoint to PowerPoint: the current NOAA National Hurricane Center forecast discussion for Hurricane Rita.
The forecast is a succinct technical communication that effectively conveys reasoning and uncertainty.

http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/text/refresh/MIATCDAT3+shtml/ 211447.shtml

11 AM EDT WED SEP 21 2005

INITIAL      21/1500Z 24.3N  85.9W   120 KT
 12HR VT     22/0000Z 24.5N  87.9W   135 KT
 24HR VT     22/1200Z 25.0N  90.0W   130 KT
 36HR VT     23/0000Z 25.7N  92.0W   125 KT
 48HR VT     23/1200Z 26.6N  94.0W   120 KT
 72HR VT     24/1200Z 29.0N  96.5W   100 KT...INLAND
 96HR VT     25/1200Z 32.5N  97.5W    40 KT...INLAND
120HR VT     26/1200Z 35.5N  97.0W    25 KT...INLAND

-- Robert Simmon (email)

The Rita forecast is certainly a big improvement on a typical PowerPoint presentation, but it's not beyond criticism.

  1. Why put it all in capital letters? Mixed upper/lower-case text is much easier to read and understand than all upper-case, as has been realized by the people who design traffic signs in many countries (though curiously not France, where I live) for at least thirty years. Computers have been able to cope with mixed upper/lower-case text for at least the same amount of time: surely the National Hurricane Center isn't still struggling with 1960s-vintage mainframes?
  2. I'm not sure if this is intended for the general public, but assuming that it is, can people be expected to know what TAFB, CIMSS, GFS and GFDL are?

However, I agree that it conveys reasoning and uncertainty in an honest manner, and that it is clearly intended for readers who think about what they are reading.

-- Athel Cornish-Bowden (email)

My guess is the NWS all-caps style 1) is left over from teletype days and 2) remains because there's quite a bit of overlap between NOAA and the Navy's oceanographic community and the Navy still uses a lot of all-caps Courier. At this point I think they keep all-caps out of nostalgia.

As a New Orleans evacuee I have come to exclusively rely on NOAA reports. Interestingly I'm now following Rita closely because Tulane's medical school was supposed to reform in Houston this Saturday. That's now postponed until 1 October. I'm also staying in College Station, which is expected to get some of the wind and rain.

-- Niels Olson (email)

The NWS caps style is also re-inforced by the fact almost all military orders (pick any service) are created in this teletype format. There is a argument that is eliminates a degree of ambiguity, at the expense of readibility. In other words, a capital letter contains the same meaning as a lower case letter. There is no implied difference of meaning based on capitalization.

But historically, it is based on telegraph and teletype styles. The format and ordering of the paragraphs can contain significance. In military communications there are generally headers and footers to tell you where you are in the message, what information to expect next, and that you have reached the end of the section or message. Assuming that you have the rosetta stone to decode often obtuse headers and footers.

By the way, this subject is very topical to me because we are frequently driven to produce reports in powerpoint rather that word. I usually object to call a powerpoint presentation a report; prefering to call it a brief or presentation. It is a very common to produce a powerpoint brief with notes pages and print the combination as a report. Even that combination leaves a lot to be desired in presenting complex issues, because all you have really done is add a text area about the same size as the powerpoint slide to amplify the slide. This, of course, means that the slide is probably not understandable to someone who is not already intimate with the subject material. But even in this case the notes pages very frequently suffer from the same choppiness.

I work in an organization where we are frequently more motivated to produce emerging findings quickly rather than conducting thorough analysis to produce quality findings. This means not only is the powerpoint brief terse and choppy, but often the results are misleading or wrong. Not to mention contentious, because it is nearly impossible to vet the findings and achieve concensus in a short period (such as less than a week in the Columbia case). I am almost sure that this situation existed in the Columbia case. And, as in my organization, you can almost assure that none of the results presented are accredited at the time they were first presented.

-- Clyde Smithson (email)

After thinking about this over the weekend the thought struck me that the NWS style messages are more a function of data packing than anything to do with readability. Since these messages are transmitted across an electronic network that has a fixed data rate it is more important to reduce the character set so as to provide greater message bandwidth. It is probably the case that the engineers have employed a bit packing technique to maximize the amount of data carried in a word. Typically 8 or 4 bytes, 64 or 32 bits, but 2 or 1 bytes are encountered as word length of data transmitted. In a bit packing system if a value is binary (say on or off) only 1 bit is needed to represent the data, and so on based on the number of states. So why waste more data than needed.

To go back to the telegraph example, Morse code has 39 defined characters (26 letters, 10 numerals, and 3 special characters) so would require 6 bits (2 to the 6th bits = 64) to represent in a digital message. This means that in a 4 byte word (32 bits) that you could represent 5 Morse code characters and you waste 2 bits of information, a 6.25% waste. Standard ASCII, which does contain lower case and more special characters, has 128 different characters (2 to the 7th bits). A 4 byte word could contain 4 Standard ASCII characters but wastes 4 bits of information, 12.5% waste. Extended ASCII has 256 characters (2 to the 8th bits) so a 4 byte word contains exactly 4 characters. Engineers sometimes deal with the lost bits by using them to contain other information such as headers, or sometimes split characters across multiple words. This, of course, requires more software at either end of the message to encode and decode the information.

But from an economy of scale ASCII takes twice the bandwidth of Morse code and Extended ASCII takes four times the bandwidth. This does matter even today with high speed internet because much of the government and military infrastructure runs through older systems with lower data rates. Additionally, as both institutions become more network-centric, our desire to put more data through the network approaches or exceeds the capacity of the faster networks to carry all this data. This extra data flowing across the networks is not the equivalent of extra knowledge. The NWS example would provide no more information to the reader if mixed upper and lower case were used, but would consume 2 or 4 times the "data" space if ASCII or Extended ASCII were used.

For some history (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ASCII#History)

-- Clyde Smithson (email)

Return to Flight Task Group biographies

Here are the biographies of those on the Return to Flight Task Group who saw the NASA engineering by PowerPoint and denounced it in their final report (quoted extensively in the last 2 pages of my essay).

As I wrote in the essay above, "Both the Columbia Accident Accident Investigation Board (2003) and the Return to Flight Task Group (2005) were filled with smart experienced people with spectacular credentials. These review boards examined what is probably the best evidence available on PP for technical work: hundreds of PP decks from a high-IQ government agency thorough practiced in PP. Both review boards concluded that (1) PP is an inappropriate tool for engineering reports, presentations, documentation; and (2) the technical report is superior to PP. Matched up against alternative tools, PowerPoint loses."

Here are the biographies of the NASA PowerPoint critics:

-- Edward Tufte

Many of the contributions to this thread are helpful -- especially those that point out flawed PowerPoint design. Has anyone found an example of skilled information design in a PowerPoint presentation?

I feel that we can only learn so much from examples of what NOT to do...

-- Scott L. Mitchell (email)

PP is a competent Projector Operating System for full screen images and videos, replacing the little forward-back button in old-fashioned projector systems. PowerPoint is neither the best nor the worst Projector Operating System. It faces strong competition from the projector itself with its own forward-back controls. A Projector Operating System, however, should not impose Microsoft's cognitive style on our presentations.

PP has some low-end design tools helpful in constructing PowerPoint parodies.

PP might also help show a few talking points an informal meetings, but why not instead print out an agenda on a piece of paper?

PowerPoint may now and then benefit the bottom 10% of all presenters. PP forces the really inept to have points, some points, any points.

-- Edward Tufte

Elizabeth Lane Lawley, a professor visiting Microsoft, comments on "the culture of the deck":


Her experience at Microsoft is comparable to that of the NASA Return to Flight Task Group with regard to the persistent disutility of using PP decks to replace technical reports.

-- Edward Tufte

PowerPoint Does New Orleans

All but one of the committee 'final reports' for Mayor Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission are out. Most are in PowerPoint. The report on levee recommendations is the lone exception.


Does plain text or PowerPoint tell the story better? Compare Howard Reich's piece in today's Chicago Tribune, Crisis of culture in New Orleans, to the official Culture Committee report of Mayor Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission.

-- Niels Olson (email)

On the subject of writing, a favorite professor of mine said: "What's in the head goes on the page." The "final reports" to which Niels Olson links are astonishingly awful, and ought to be required reading for the those who would defend the general utility of Power Point. That these are "final reports" -- not merely tools to supplement the oral presentation of conclusions from actual written reports -- suggests that an antiliterate (I was going to write subliterate, but the word is insufficiently strong) approach now dominates public policy discussion in the United States. What a shame.

-- Alexey Merz (email)

Cognitive Style of PowerPoint 2nd edition now published

Just published is the 2nd edition of The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. It is now 32 pages long; the original essay was 24 pages. The new edition contains the material on PowerPoint and rocket science that opens this thread, a long discussion of the causes of presentations (sorting out variation among users, content, and presentation methods), and an essay on lists. This new edition is also a chapter in Beautiful Evidence.

For more information and to order click here.

-- Edward Tufte

Thank you thank you thank you! I am an environmental scientist, and my company does environmental impact assessment 1-10 day training workshops -- WITHOUT Powerpoint! We have a programmer who prepares an occasional animated presentation in Flash (which is also helpful because it is only images, so we can offer it in any country, in any language) -- so I will have a projector in the room, and you should see everyone's face fall when they first enter and see the projector, and watch them light up when I tell them it is only there to scare them! Our trainings use case studies, flip charts, an occasional video or a cartoon on an overhead during the break, and music...NO Powerpoint or even Apple's lovely and way easier and more beautiful implementation of a similar system, called Keynote. I try and try to explain to prospective clients why we don't use it -- but sometimes we are actually required to use it by, gasp, their TRAINING departments....anyway, this is a long- winded way of saying that the PP disease is very hard to cure but there are many of us who simply refuse to be infected...and thanks for providing some good ammunition to use with our clients.

-- Leslie Wildesen, Ph.D. (email)

It's not just reports that suffer.

I've recently attended a "technical" training course in which we were presented with an enormous number of PowerPoint slides, most of which were merely read aloud. Not only was this course mind-numbing to teach — I can only pity the instructor — it's also an active waste of time.

At the end of the course we were given a book containing one slide per page, along with a small amount of notes below. I've struggled to find the worst of these slides, and I've recreated one of the candidates here (90k PNG). I'm assuming direct scans would be forbidden, and I've neglected to include the "content" provider's logo.

I am still unable to find any shred of meaning in this slide, or many of the others.

-- Dan Avis (email)


Here is a link to William Harwood's excellent account of shuttle risks in the upcoming flight, scheduled for this Saturday. This link provides context for my comments that follow. http://www.spaceflightnow.com/shuttle/sts121/060629preview/part1.html


About 18 months ago in Houston I reviewed the shuttle Probability Risk Assessment (PRA) material for NASA. PRA works with a list of possible threats, estimates their probablilities and expected losses, and then seeks to assist decision-making for shuttle risk-reduction.

After the PRA group presented their results, I had two major suggestions:

(1) They should prepare a detailed summary matrix (on, of course, 11" by 17" paper), ordering the risks and providing, in a comments column, relevant background for each estimate. Let that intense matrix, backed up by similar more-detailed 11" by 17" arrays of risk estimates, be the main presentation device and analytical tool for making decisions. This was designed to replace their chippy and twiddly PP slides, which made a hash of their good technical work and made it difficult to assess the overall risk context.

(2) The PRA assessments did not take into account a major risk factor in both the Challenger and Columbia accidents: on-ground intellectual failures in engineering analysis. In the case of the Challenger, the analytic process on the day before the accident was seriously deficient, in the sense that--in hindsight to be sure--the Challenger would not have been launched on that very cold day (which compromised the O-rings and caused the accident) if smarter engineering analysis and better decision-making had taken place. In the case of the Columbia, better analysis and decision-making during the flight might have yielded rescue efforts to try to save the crew, which was endangered by damage to the Columbia suffered at launch. I suggested to the PRA group that on-ground analytic problems contributed to something like 1.3 of the 2.0 accidents in the 113 flights. But there was no risk assessment of such in the PRA; that is, about 65% of the directly observed empirical risk in the 113 flights was not accounted for by the PRA model. The shuttle itself was considerably less risky than what was happening on the ground in decision-making about the shuttle.

At the meeting, I also handed out Richard Feynman's famous discussion of shuttle risks, which Feynman prepared as a part of the Challenger investigation in 1987.


The analysis for the upcoming launch of the Discovery in July 2006, as the link above indicates, was an intense evaluation of risks and trade-offs.

On the basis of reading some of the public documentation (and no direct knowledge) for the upcoming flight in the last few weeks, I think that NASA has made a reasonable and well-informed decision for the upcoming flight. It was also a contested decision. I would vote for the launch. The on-ground factors that contributed to 1.3 shuttle losses appear to be mitigated by the thorough analysis for this flight. The current risk number is a cloudy 1 in 100, which is risky but has been acceptable in the past. The cloudy contributions to risk are the recent changes in the foam, which turns Discovery into something of an experiment.

In the Discovery discussions, a telling distinction was made between "programmatic risks" and "crew risks." The programmatic risk is very high right now no matter what happens. Having flown once in 3+ years, the shuttle program might well collapse if unable to fly soon (within a year or so), or if there is another accident even if the crew escaped unharmed. This rescue scenario is itself troublesome, since the rescue launch must quickly take into account what caused the need for the Discovery crew-rescue in the first place.

-- Edward Tufte


Another detailed and excellent account by William Harwood on the eve of the flight:


There is a Feynman-like clarity to the Discovery analysis done by Michael Griffin, NASA's director. Now it just has to be confirmed empirically!

ET, Saturday, 6.53am

-- Edward Tufte


Here's the PP deck for "STS-121, Flight Readiness Review, External Tank Project (ET-119):"


This pdf file should be up in a separate window to read in parallel with the comments below:

These slides summarize the results of the enormous amount of resources (probably >$1 billion, some estimates are much higher) devoted to the external tank foam problem.

The slides do not display a sense of engineering intelligence or discipline. In the main report, there is a persistent habit of dequantification and a general absence of units of measurement. The back-up slides are more quantified and at a higher intellectual level. Several of the slides look like they were produced by a designer lacking in scientific training.

The key overview slide (page 3) is a very good idea but a presentation mess. The good idea is to have an intense and fairly detailed summary early in the presentation. But PP's lightweight resolution and lousy design tools compromise the summary slide. Students of PP design might, however, appreciate the 5 sets of orange drop-shadows, 4 wavy-purple color fields, 3 unintentionally 3D blue time-lines, 2 overactive grids, and floating-off-in-space bullets in the highlight box (with an arbitrary change from dots to dashes midstream in the box). All this stuff on one over-produced but importantslide.

In real science, every photograph has a scale of measurement built right in to the photograph. This low-resolution display method makes it impossible to do so. (Even the shuttle close-out photos, just about the most documentary type of photographs one can imagine, have no scales of measurement and no rulers in the pictures.)

The bullet lists tend somewhat to be base-touching grunts, which show effects without causes, actions without actors, verbs without subjects, and nouns without predicates. The branding with 3 logos on every slide (the title slide has 4 logos) is unprofessional, pitchy, turfy. Are we doing engineering analysis or marketing here? Some 20% of the space of every slide (already a a very low resolution display method) is devoted to branding and to the boxed-in awkward and repetitive slide titles. It is as if each and every slide has to remind the viewer what the presentation is about. So the top 20% of every slide is something to skip, perhaps putting some viewers in the mode of skipping and sliding through the rest of the slide. It is as if the top of every slide announces "nothing important here, you've seen it all many times before."

In several slides, the visually most active materials are the cross-hatched exploding 3D arrows linking the external tank to the magnified areas. Why are the arrows pointing anyway? It's just a simple linking line. The idea here of close contextualized imaging of the problem areas is a very good one, but the badly-drawn giant blue arrows are silly, and result in making the dequantified images of the foam problem areas too small.

The typography is poor, with odd hierarchies (underlined bold italic in parentheses at one point). Is "O2" the proper way for NASA contractors and NASA to write the oxygen molecule (even wikipedia uses a subscript)? Does the slide designer know how to write a subscript in PP?

The overlapping statistical graphics on page BU-2 are presented as decoration, not evidence.

The report is 33 slides long; yet about 10 slide-equivalents are essentially content-free (compulsive repetitive branding, twiddly hierarchical organization, empty space, assorted title pages, and so on). This PP fluffed-up material here and quite a bit more could easily be placed in a technical report on 4 pages of an 11" by 17" piece of paper (folded in half), an exercise left to the student.

The tone and style of the presentation seem alienated from professional engineering. It looks like the slides were prepared by a PP designer, assisted now and then by an engineer. Or maybe it is just the PP pitch style diluting the content. At an FRR?!

I hope the actual engineering for the shuttle is a lot better than the evidence for the engineering shown in this presentation.

How much does a problematic presentational style signal poor engineering? Is it just PP or a PP designer weakening the quality of evidence? Or are there deeper intellectual failures? The dequantification, the failure to follow professional engineering conventions, the infomercial tone are worrisome. There is no sign of engineering discipline here, except in the back-up slides. Thus the effect of the presentation is to suggest that there just might be some problems with foam engineering and analytical quality. A danger of problematic presentational styles, such as NASA PP, is not only that they enable sloppiness but also that they can place the truth in disrepute.

It is also a shame that all that expensive engineering work winds up being represented in this manner at a Flight Readiness Review.

-- Edward Tufte

Discovery foam problems occur on launch pad

This morning, Monday July 3, news of a small foam crack came out. On the evening of July 2, after 2 tankings and drainings for launch attempts scrubbed because of the weather, inspectors found a 5" crack in the foam on the Discovery external tank on the launch pad. Here's an excerpt from the KSC Ice/ Debris Team:

"The inboard strut for the L02 Feedline Bracket assembly at XT-1129 was found to be cracked. The damage is approx 5-6 inches long and appears to originate near the where the strut connects to the feedline and extends toward the ET. The TPS crack is approx 1/4 inch wide with an offset of approx 1/4 inch. An IPR was initiated for this item. Inboard views of the remaining visible brackets did not reveal any similar damage. Outboard views of the feedline brackets revealed areas of TPS debris in the gap between the feedline and the bracket - this condition was noticed at XT-1129, 1377, and 1623. No obvious indications of crushed foam or debris was detected at the XT-1871 and 1978 brackets."

There's a picture of the foam crack and the full inspection report here.

Note that the inspection report is written in sentences and not in the cryptic grunts of PowerPoint.

There is a research design problem or a control group problem here: are we seeing cracked foam or inspections of cracked foam? Perhaps every launch of the 114 has had some foam debris shedding, and we're only seeing small pieces and cracks now because the intensity of inspections has increased since the Columbia. Or maybe not.

-- Edward Tufte

From 9.00-9.30 pm Monday, William Gerstenmaier, NASA's head of Space Operations, gave an informative and smart news conference on the foam issue. He provided a summary of the evidence and answered questions from the space press. There's no problem as a result of the foam liberation incident. Weather permitting, the Discovery will launch tomorrow.

-- Edward Tufte

Response to PowerPoint Does Rocket Science (and the upcoming Discovery flight)

Did the news conference present the PP slides, or did they a different medium to convey the details?

-- Allan T. Grohe Jr. (email)

They usually give a brief talk and then answer questions in a straightforward and intelligent manner, accompanied by occasional physical props, such as the broken-off piece of foam or model of the external tank. They did not use PP in the 8 to 10 press conferences I've viewed. You can see the press conferences and the launch by going to nasa tv at


Apparently the PP Flight Readiness Review for the foam (reviewed above) was something of a leak; the other FRRs at the meeting are not going to be made available. Keith Cowing, who runs NASA Watch, sent me an email saying that I might be interested in the foam FRR that he had posted at his website. You can see more on this at


I think the press conferences are excellent, assisted by a well-informed space press. After the flight, the head of NASA Michael Griffin was asked at the press conference if he felt "vindicated" by his decision to launch. He said not at all, if anything, it was vindication for the scientific method--that is, looking at the evidence and the numbers at hand. What a wonderful thing for the Director of NASA to say. This contrasts to the PP cognitive style, which often seems to encourage presenters to pitch rather than present evidence.

-- Edward Tufte

The FRR-foam summary slide is now shown about 5 contributions up (in my review of that presentation).

And, also added, immediately above, a press conference photo of William Gerstenmaier showing the foam chip.

-- ET

Below, a link to a good account of the Discovery inspections by John Schwartz of the New York Times on the problem of distinguishing useful evidence from additional evidence, a problem that also occurs with newly developed exquisitely sensitive measurements (for example, PSA tests and the monitoring of contaminants of drinking water).

John Schwartz, New Scrutiny for Every Speck on the Shuttle, New York Times, 11 July 2006.

These issues can lead to quite subtle consequences, as my Yale colleague Alvan R. Feinstein suggested in many studies, including this one in the Archives of Internal Medicine: ". . . many breast cancers found by mammography screening have excellent prognosis not just because of early detection, but also because many of the cancers are relatively benign, requiring minimal therapy."

Sandra Y. Moody-Ayers, MD; Carolyn K. Wells, MPH; Alvan R. Feinstein, MD, MS, "Benign" Tumors and "Early Detection" in Mammography-Screened Patients of a Natural Cohort With Breast Cancer, Arch Intern Med. 2000;160:1109-1115.

(Thanks to Niels Olson for the NYT permalink above.)

-- Edward Tufte

Here's a clear technical report and press release, using a 4-page format (similar to A3 or 11" by 17", folded in half). If the report were printed as a 4-pager folded-in-half, then the June 2005/April 2006 images would fall somewhat closer together, which would facilitate comparison (although both images can be seen vertically adjacent simultaneously on, for example, a 30" monitor). From the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS):



Here are links to the Guardian and the Washington Post accounts of the ISIS report:



Several other ISIS reports are distinguished by their sourcing, detail, use of satellite photographs, and estimates of uncertainty. See, for example, Chinese Military Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium Inventories, by David Albright and Corey Hinderstein:


-- Edward Tufte

Interesting presentations with full-screen dynamic graphics by Hans Rosling:



(These links were provided by Kindly Contributor Cesar Martin.)

-- Edward Tufte

From Nature, 13 July 2006, still more on PP, this from Martin Kemp, an Oxford art historian:

-- Edward Tufte

Here is a well-designed technical report:


It is about 7 pages long. Note the excellent illustrations, integration of text and images, documentation, careful citations, and different types of evidence. Note also the use of sentences and paragraphs and flowing text, not the grunts of hierarchical bullet points on slides.

This is a very high standard for a technical report, but why not start at that level?

-- Edward Tufte

In your workshops, you describe how to replace PowerPoint presentations with 11 x 17 sized reports, and provide many good arguments for why "engineering by PowerPoint" doesn't work very well.

This is a website that might interest you and your audience. It describes a process for creating A3 sized technical reports, and using them to make better decisions.


Dr. Durward Sobek of Montana State University spent six months in Japan as a grad student, interviewing and observing Toyota engineers to uncover the reasons why Toyota was able to develop cars much more quickly than other auto makers and also maintain high standards for reliability.

Toyota uses these A3 reports extensively in their engineering processes. They believe that the discipline required to accurately capture a problem on a single sheet forces the author to express the issue with both clarity and conciseness. They emphasize using visual models to express ideas rather than a lot of text, and value the ability to have all of the pertinent information within a single field of vision. The engineers are also required to bring their supporting documentation, so that the team can dive into the details when necessary.

Since then, Dr. Sobek has taught many engineers how to use A3 reports to make better technical decisions. I can tell you from my personal experience with this technique that it is amazingly powerful. By using one of these reports, we solved a technical problem within a single meeting that we had literally wrestled with for years through engineering by PowerPoint. By forcing us to make our knowledge about the problem visible in a systematic way, the tool helped us come to a deeper understanding that led to the solution.

Best regards,

Katherine Radeka

-- Katherine Radeka (email)

The "A3 Process" described above begins with a good idea and then dilutes it into a Business Methodology Fad. BMFs are characterized by a germ of a good idea, but also by over-reaching, over-simplifying, excessive focus on a single idea, pitchy and enthusiastic over-simplified examples, and pretentious names ("The Toyota Method," "The Long Tail,", "The Genghis Khan Guide to Mastering the Universe," "The Takahari Guide to Infinite Profits," and so on).

In the Beautiful Evidence chapter on corrupt techniques in evidence presentations, the section on over-reaching concludes with this: "When a precise, narrowly focused technical idea becomes metaphor and sprawls globally, its credibility must be earned afresh locally by means of specific evidence demonstrating the relevance and explanatory power of the idea in its new application." (p. 151)

The A3 method, which at its heart is a good idea, requires some down-in-the-trenches detailed and complex examples. And it should avoid bullet lists in describing the method.

-- Edward Tufte

A remarkable account of "Death by PowerPoint," as the phrase takes on new meaning:


-- Edward Tufte

From Thomas Ricks' book Fiasco:

"[Army Lt. General David] McKiernan had another, smaller but nagging issue: He couldn't get Franks to issue clear orders that stated explicitly what he wanted done, how he wanted to do it, and why. Rather, Franks passed along PowerPoint briefing slides that he had shown to Rumsfeld: "It's quite frustrating the way this works, but the way we do things nowadays is combatant commanders brief their products in PowerPoint up in Washington to OSD and Secretary of Defense...In lieu of an order, or a frag [fragmentary order], or plan, you get a bunch of PowerPoint slides...[T]hat is frustrating, because nobody wants to plan against PowerPoint slides." That reliance on slides rather than formal written orders seemed to some military professionals to capture the essence of Rumsfeld's amateurish approach to war planning. "Here may be the clearest manifestation of OSD's contempt for the accumulated wisdom of the military profession and of the assumption among forward thinkers that technology-- above all information technology--has rendered obsolete the conventions traditionall governing the preparation and conduct of war," commented retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich, a former commander of an armored cavalry regiment. "To imagine that PowerPoint slides can substitute for such means is really the height of recklessness." It was like telling an automobile mechanic to use a manufacturer's glossy sales brochure to figure out how to repair an engine."

This raises some of the same issues discussed in the report by members of the NASA Return to Flight Task Force in the contribution at the top of this thread.

-- Edward Tufte

I have just found and bookmarked this brilliant set of material - good work and great dialog by all.

I've had my share of problems with PP and it's predicessors. Managing marketing groups in Silicon Valley, I always tried to get product managers to keep it simple. My mantra was "no more than three bullets" and "if it takes more than three, you need another slide". This approach was a recognition that presentation software was going to be used no matter what. I would say that my success rate was less than 10%. The prevailing culture often obsessed with creating slide templates that allowed as many bullets on a page as possible.

One earlier post illustrates a similar "can't see the wood for the trees" communications problem. Clyde Smithson does a creditable job of describing the efficiency of coding systems (Oct 2005) but misses that larger point. He takes a one-dimensional approach to value in communications - bandwidth is expensive - and advocates everything possible to reduce the useage of this expensive resource. This kind of thinking comes from the early days of communciations and microwave engineering. In a society dominated by Moore's Law, how valuable is that saved bandwidth compared to using a more verbose coding system like UTF that alows us to communicate in most languages on the planet?

Clearly, the message is about communication, less about cost. This kind of thinking has us guiding 100 million dollar aircraft around the sky using restricted-voice bandwidth technology that dates back to early phone systems and carbon radio microphones. Anyone who has used a full-spectrum voice system like Skype knows that fewer mistakes and mis-hears occur when all of the audio information is present. Should the lives of hundreds of passengers be placed at higher risk because the radio designer and regulatory agency saved 20 dollars on a radio costing a few hundred?

More power to your biting analysis and critical assessment of communication.

-- Brian MacLeod (email)

Having just completed ET's course yesterday, I was curious to see if PP could handle mathematical expressions (operators, superscripts, subscripts...). It can. Maybe not that easily, but with a little work, the pivotal Boeing slide could have looked much better. This means that those who are required to use PP should take the extra time to make their slides the best they can.

Of course, we would all be better off with an 11 x 17 paper document with real analysis...

-- Andy Orr (email)

A follow up to the quote from Thomas Ricks' book _Fiasco_ and an indication that things can change. Again, from Thomas Ricks' _Fiasco_:

"Col. McMaster also challenged the U.S. military, all but banning the use of Power Point briefings by his officers. The Army loves these bulleted briefings, but McMaster had come to believe that the ubiquitous software inhibits clarity of thinking, expression, and planning." pg 421

-- Dave Froberg (email)

Engineering software problems at NASA:



-- Edward Tufte

The Harvard School of Public Health Instructional Computing Facility may be capable of writing witless PP designer stylesheets, however, I suspect that much of the problem is generated from above by corporate "identity management" requirements. Consider this advice on how to generate materials which inform their audiences about "world class" research. http://www.leeds.ac.uk/identitymanagement/styles/research.htm

-- John McMillan (email)

The War on Prose

9/11 Five Years Later: Successes and Challenges: http://www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/waronterror/2006/index.html

That's not writing, it's PowerPoint (apologies to Truman Capote).

-- Alexey Merz (email)

I've worked at several large software companies ($1B+). At both companies I worked to help improve business processes, planning, reporting, and decision making.

The unfortunate truth in my experience is that the executive team and their business managers didn't want more than the pablimized bullets. I sat in one meeting where a senior executive chastised product management for "not writing business plans." But then, he'd never asked for one ... so why would anyone ever have written one ... and frankly if someone had written one, I'm not sure he would have read it.

It's easy to blame the tool ... but I think .ppt is just a symptom of something else. There are two sides: authentic presentation and authentic listening. We need both.

I appreciate all the work Tufte has done on authentic presentation ... who's working on authentic listening?

-- Dennis Allen (email)

One more piece: Lousy PowerPoint presentations: The fault of PP users?

-- Edward Tufte

A well designed single page technical report from Science:

-- Edward Tufte

POWERPOINT GOES TO IRAQ! Here is an excerpt from today's (September 29, 2006) New York Times article on Bob Woodward's latest book "State of Denial":

"The book describes an exchange in early 2003 between Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the retired officer Mr. Bush appointed to administer postwar Iraq, and President Bush and others in the White House situation room. It describes senior war planners as having been thoroughly uninterested in the details of the postwar mission.

"After General Garner finished his PowerPoint presentation -- which included his plan to use up to 300,000 troops of the Iraqi Army to help secure postwar Iraq, the book says -- there were no questions from anyone in the situation room, and the president gave him a rousing sendoff."

Now, would you not love to see that presentation?

-- Bruce Post (email)

You may wish to take a look at what Microsoft considers good presentation design:


Those who make the tool seem quite out of touch with the needs of those who use it. I've read far better advice even on sites that uncritically accept PowerPoint as a valuable tool. The slides Microsoft presents as models, I would present as examples of what to avoid.

In particular, take a look at the 'better' slide at: http://www.microsoft.com/library/media/1033/atwork/images/getworkdone/55686_375x325_basicbetter2_.jpg


Dominic Brown

-- Dominic Brown (email)

Excellent example of a public technical report

Here's an excellent public technical report sent to all the customers of the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority. Note the straightforward text, the names of those responsible, and the competent data tables.

-- Edward Tufte

Coaches Use Laminated Game Outlines for Any Situation
The New York Times
Published: October 27, 2006

Double-sided, 11 by 14 inch technical report--or project management chart--here.

-- Edward Tufte


Central Command Charts Sharp Movement of the Civil Conflict in Iraq Toward Chaos

By MICHAEL R. GORDON, The New York Times

Published: November 1, 2006

See the NYT news story here

Here are some preliminary comments on the slide "Iraq: I&W of Civil Conflict."

It appears that "I&W" means "Indications and Warnings." Replacing the acronym in the slide title does pep up meaning to outsiders: "Iraq: Indications and Warnings of Civil Conflict," but maybe it wouldn't fit on the slide.

Only this single slide was leaked (by the military? by DoD?), and so maybe some of the analytical problems are better handled on accompanying slides. Maybe.

Doing competent political analysis, epidemiology, nation-building, and war planning (all of which they're trying to do) in a chaotic situation is impossible, and not much good social science and epidemiology can be expected in chaos and from a military entangled in Iraq. In real-time chaotic situations, the data-collection is going to be sloppy because people have more important things to do. (Recall, for example, the gross errors in counts of 9/11 deaths, as the count went from 6,000 to 2,800 in a few weeks.) And what's taking place is in profoundly different cultures and in different languages from those of the non-local military in Iraq. But sloppy data does not justify analytical sloppiness in reporting. In fact, sloppy data requires greater analytical precision of thought.

The slide reports performance data--a list of phrases, with each phrase accompanied by a measure of performance. This is what the tables in the sports section, mutual fund page, and weather page of newspapers do very well. Those designs are much better for reporting performance data than the slide format here. In sports and stock market tables, each phrase is accompanied by multiple measures of performance, often over varying time-periods. All that won't fit on the slide; this suggests that we should use better reporting method than PP, instead of abbreviating the evidence to fit the slide. As the millions of readers of sports tables each day demonstrate, people can easily manage large tables of information. Thus those being briefed in the military should ask: Why are our presentations operating at 2% of the data richness of routine tables found in the sports section? Let the viewers read and explore through a range of material; different eyes will search for different things in the evidence. The metaphor should be the cognitive style of the sports section (or weather or financial newspaper pages) not the cognitive style of PowerPoint.

There is no cloud of uncertainty or error history associated with the editorializing color. At times, such color codings suggest an excess of certainty.

The Iraq slide above provides some relevant but thin and overly short-run time-comparisons: 2 arrows on the left showing "change since last week," and the "Index of Civil Conflict (Assessed)", which sort of compares "Pre- Samarra" with "Last week" and "Current". And there's a potent time-comparison in words: ". . . violence at all-time high, spreading geographically."

To get more time comparisons on the 14 "Reads" and "Additional Indicators," 14 sparkline time-line histories for the last year (week by week, if available) would be useful as a overall but detailed summary. This would reduce the snapshot tone of the 14 reads and indicators. In our thread Sparklines: theory and practice, there are (at the top of the thread) data tables with sparklines that report daily and longterm financial data; one such table shows 14,000 numbers, many of them accurate to only 2 digits (not much for financial data) under the philosophy of "Try to be approximately right rather than exactly wrong." The short-run weekly jitters and non-reports need to be smoothed out to see (and compare with)the long-run trends. Weekly data cooperate with the notorious recency bias, whereby way too much weight is given to the most recent piece of data, just because it is recent. These weekly reports should be in the context of longer run information to reduce the chances that analysis will be dancing around only with today's news.

The list style, surely one damn thing after another here, is merely descriptive and thus preliminary to policy analysis. That analysis might have been done on the other slides or maybe this report is merely meant as a scorecard. If it is a scorecard, it is grossly impoverished compared to sports, weather, and financial tables.

The current fashion (it, too, shall pass) in government is the stoplight style (green, yellow, red), which tends to dequantify data. With categories of this sort, there's always a concern with how the breaks among categories are chosen and with the meanings of the categories. It will often be better to provide some evidence or numbers, and then a separate editorial-judgmental color about the number.

The slide contains odd uses of the color-words: for example, a green dot indicating "routine" next to the exciting phrase "unorganized spontaneous mass civil conflict". Shouldn't "routine unorganized spontaneous mass civil conflict" be red-critical? After Hiroshima, would Nagasaki get the routine green dot for nothing different than what happened three days earlier? It looks like weekly wiggles get too much attention, and longrun levels of seriousness too little attention on this slide, as chaos becomes routine week by week and bit by bit. Monthly rather then the sketchy weekly reports might be better for policy analysis. Or at least provide a monthly aggregations over a period of many months (even the entire war) in a scorecard along with the weekly incidents.

The leaking of the slide makes a point about the differences between the government's secret analysis and the public reports by the Administration, a common theme of the insider books on Iraq policy-making (most recently Colin Powell's book). At some time, "reality must take precedence over public relations," as Richard Feynman remarked about the shuttle Challenger accident.

A good many comments by our contributors are on-point but are not taken into account here.

Note the measurements, definitions, and comparisons to standards in the customer scorecard in the "Report of the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority" (above).

Finally, the over-riding metaphor of all this--"the war on terror"--is a big conceptual problem. Once it's a war, then it almost necessarily invokes large-scale military action and searching for a locale (some place, any place, Iraq) for large-scale military action. But terrorists are more like the Mafia or gangs than they are like armies. Perhaps a better metaphor is that terrorism is largely a law-enforcement problem (requiring focused and clandestine local action, informants, endless detective work, detailed knowledge of the local languages and cultures).

Among the grand truths about human behavior, surely the principles of "the unintended consequences of purposive social action" and "it's more complicated than that" are among the top five. Sometimes unintended consequences are largely virtuous or benign (as in market allocation of goods and services if externalities are mitigated) and sometimes the unintended consequences are appalling. That's because it's more complicated than that.

-- Edward Tufte

It occurred to me partway thru the discussions of NASA presentations that it was not always that way at NASA. In the 60's, NASA reps regularly visited elementary schools across the nation. They were good speakers, and they brought many physical props (rocket models, liquid oxygen, various active electronics). What they did NOT bring was any sort of slides or overhead projector. Their shows were wildly popular.

-- Carl Witthoft (email)

At the completion of my undergraduate studies (1999), I had to present a thesis I wrote as a requirement for latin honors. The thesis dealt with a software API I had written, and I wanted to demonstrate my work by running an executable program on a laptop connected to a projector.

Simple as that may sound, I had no success in communicating the nature of my requirements to the college secretary. The discussion when something like this...

Beau: Can you provide a computer and projector so that I could run a computer program to demonstrate my work to the audience?

Secretary: You'll have to talk with OTR if you want to do a PowerPoint.

Beau: I don't want to use PowerPoint, I just want to briefly run a program I wrote myself for the audience.

Secretary (bewildered): You've got to talk with someone from OTR if you want to do a PowerPoint. Shelly is doing a PowerPoint and she called up OTR weeks ago to schedule the equipment. You have to check out a laptop with a copy of PowerPoint and a projector. You can't just ask for these things three days before the presentation... there's a lot of setup that has to be done!

Beau: Well, if you could just make sure there is a rudimentary PC-compatible computer at the head of the table I can run my program. The room is small so I guess I don't really need the projector.

Secretary: You'll have to call OTR if you want to do a PowerPoint.

I ended up using plastic transparencies with screen shots. I was never on the PowerPoint bandwagon, but from that point on I developed an acute disdain for the product.

I am proud to say that I have never presented a PowerPoint presentation. And I have done a great many presentations... I have presented profesionally to groups of managers, presented data at technical conferences, served as MC for large awards banquets, etcetera.

On some occasions I have used HTML to present information. It lends itself remarkably well to this task, especially with the browser in full-screen mode.

As far as the simple bullet / agenda type data that PowerPoint handles well is concerned, I just pass out hard copies. It is amazing how few people do that.

If I want to show a bunch of pictures in sequence, I'll either use a slide projector of I'll just open the pictures up in sequence, e.g. from Windows Explorer. If the content of my presentation won't stand on its own merit despite the fact that I (unprofessionally) had Explorer open in front of the audience for a few seconds, then there's a larger problem that cannot be solved by PowerPoint.

To me, PowerPoint is yet another example of a phenomenon that has become epidemic to the software industry: the answer to a question no one asked.

-- Beau Wilkinson (email)

I've taken your suggestions to heart in the presentations I've given recently, and I thank you for the good advice.

My questions is: how can this advice be applied to a multi-day training course? I'm about to design a three-day technical course, and am determined to not assault the students with days of PP junk.

My plan right now is do divide the course into 3-hour sections, each with a single-page handout. Slides would be mostly graphics. But I'm concerned how students will react to the lack of a text book (yes, usually just a set of slide printouts). I'm also trying to design the course so that others can teach it, but the lack of text slides makes this more problematic. I'm guessing I'll need a teaching guide that contains a prose walkthrough of each section.

In any case, I'd just like to get some opinions about how to best present a multi-day technical course.

-- Patrick Paulin (email)

The above advice about the 4-page technical report applies to multi-day courses as well. You probably should average about one 4-page technical report per hour or two; that report should contain graphics, tables, text, and whatever it takes to explain something. Use a slide projector only for full-screen color images and videos. Use the handout technical reports for everything else. In short, your presentation program is Word not PowerPoint. Use slideware only as a projector operating system for full color images and videos.

It is useful to hand out all the day's technical reports at the beginning. If your audience goes through them before you get to the material, you're already a success and you should be thankful--for you have an alert active audience using their own cognitive style to look at your stuff.

-- Edward Tufte

An opportunity missed

Here is an unfortunately typical recommendation: that data graphics intended as feed-grain for talks presented to nonscientists be stripped of (among other things) error bars.

The better option is, of course, showing raw data along with the means (or other markers of central tendency). This would not needlessly complicate the presentation, and it would allow even the untutored to evaluate consistency or variability in the data - presumably, key parameters in a study of human behavioral responses, the example shown.

If the study is a good one, the raw data will underscore that the conclusions presented sit atop a substantial observational foundation. As Dr. Tufte and many others have pointed out, any audience that can understand a typical sports or business page is going to be underwhelmed by the data-paucity of a typical data-summary bar graph. A dozen dinky little earthtone bars? You fellas got grant support for that?

In short, graphs of raw data clarify how observations are accrued and interpreted: the very mechanics of science. Scientific process - every bit as much as the conclusions - should be the central goal of communicating science to a lay audience. Otherwise, the growing fears and suspicions that science is merely an empty belief system are reinforced.

-- Alexey J. Merz (email)


The goal of the summary statistics and consequential graphic must be to show the distribution of the responses. Measures of central tendency rarely tell the whole story (excepting of course when discussing binary data). What are needed are summaries that tell us the whole story; if the mean doesn't do the trick, then we need more.

The data (through the order statistics) are always jointly sufficient statistics, regardless of the underlying distribution. That's why showing all the data works. Consider this as an example displaying the perils of using only rudimentary summary measures. In general, error bars that were removed in the above blog are a poor solution to showing the distribution. At least for continuous data, boxes and whiskers, or the like, must be greatly preferred; the ink on the page ought to map us to the data. 'Dynamite plots', showing means as thick bars and standard deviations (or standard errors?) as error bar whiskers, violate this principle: at the bottom with have ink that represents no data; then moving up, we have ink that represents data; above the bar, we have blank space that represents data; then way up high, we have blank space that represents no data. No wonder people are confused.

In the end, we are quite rarely interested in the measure of central tendency, regardless of how easy it is to compute. What matters is the distribution; show the atoms.


-- rafe donahue (email)

I've read (or, at least, skimmed) the range of cogent comments and responses on the topic of over-utilization of PowerPoint and am surprised to find little (if any) mention of the factor that constitutes my own violent objection to its prevalent use, that being that increased reliance on PP and other visual aids in education, training, project and crisis management fundamentally undermines the active involvement and cognitive engagement of the target audience/students/team members by converting the desemination of information to a passive presentation. I'm by no means anti-tech and absolutely could not do my job (major infrastructure electrical engineering and project managment) without the transforming efficiency of CADD, CPM scheduling, electronic communications and spreadsheets. However, I consider it my good fortune to have been educated, through college, in the pre-personal computer (and PowerPoint) era of blackboards and handwritten notes. Is anyone aware of any formal studies on the pedagogical effects of wholesale conversion of knowledge transmission from the "active" lecture/blackboard and individual note-taking model to the "passive" distribution of pre-written and pre-organized information? To illustrate my, perhaps, unclear point: imagine if the NASA briefing on the renegade foam chunk had included, not a series of well-intentioned but arguably biased and confusing PP "slides" but, instead, a presenter with a handful of notes reading aloud the issues of concern and outlining them on a black or whiteboard. I guarantee that the convened participants would have been actively: (1. taking more copious notes (hence, paying closer attention) (2. asking questions and requesting clarifications (3. organizing and formulating their OWN heirarchies of concern (4. forcing, by their active participation and feedback, the presenter to adjust and expand his blackboard presentation and illustration of the issues to incorporate the group feedback.

I would further argue that an individual's depth of comprehension and longterm functional recall of any information is greatly enhanced by the simple act of physically transcribing it. When people are provided, as passive recipients, with pre-organized information and know they will have access to hard or electronic copy of same, they do not intellectually absorb nor process it at the highest level nor are they as motivated to focus their attention.

Anyone can test this on themselves (I have.) Next time your organization mandates non-critical HR or IT informational "training" , have them run sessions with and without PP or other graphic aids and handouts and require the attendees at the "without" sessions to take notes. Collect the notes at the end and give both groups the same quiz on the topic. Care to guess the results?

The outcome can be even more profound in crisis management meetings (again, I've tested this). PARTICULARLY in a crisis situation the last thing you need for dynamic and creative problem-solving is information distilled/arranged/codified/biased by one or a few people (which is what use of PP inescapably tends to do) and presented in a format that encourages intellectual passivity.

-- Kerry Parslow (email)

Iran influence in Iraq - the 11 Feb briefing


-- David Person (email)

As a high school student, PP is by far the most common way my peers give presentations. While some take the slides as an outline for a more meaningful conversation with the class, others read the bullets verbatim. I guess part of the problem with PP being used professionally is that it's inculcated as the most efficient at a very young age. This is one problem.

A more troubling problem is that my physics teacher teaches the class with PP slides. In some ways I feel cheated, and I can tell the difference because I've been fortunate to take the same Physics class at University. The University professor taught with a chalkboard, and, as cheesy as it sounds, really brought the subject to life and made it interesting. Even though I understand there is a difference in quality for high school teachers and college professors, I feel that I was taught Physics by the professor, while I am self-learning the subject that I am taking in high school. It's even more disconcerting to find that some college professors (I've seen an MIT physics class with PP notes) are beginning to use PP slides to teach. In a rigorous mathematical course like Physics, I feel that it is a mistake.

But, I'm only a student, what can I do?

-- High school student

How is PP like a software house?

I have just finished reading the PP essay, which I thoroughly enjoyed and agreed with, but one statement in it bothered me. In mentioning the history of PP, you make the claim that the structure of PP presentations mirrors that of a software house; I fail to see the reasoning here. If you're referring to the hierarchical division of a software house into departments and so forth, than how does this differ from the structure of, say, a university? On the other hand, the operation of a software house (not to mention software itself) is a very complex thing, and surely not a model for dumbed-down presentations.

-- Erez Volk (email)

For what I wrote about PP's metaphor, see our thread Metaphors for Presentations: Conway's Law Meets PowerPoint.
The opening section of that thread is from my 32-page PP essay.

For more on design and bureaucracy, see my Visual Explantions, pages 146-149.

-- Edward Tufte

Related to my post on Dr Vigh's zoomimage use of Quicktime VR of 9 December 2005, the Raskin Center has a similar demo. Of note is that the Raskin Center's demo is based on the small web format (swf), so more people can use it. Quicktime is not natively supported on Linux and other open-source distributions. The Raskin SWF also implements the obvious by putting many thoughts on one page.

-- Niels Olson (email)

Other PP threads

NOTE: Above is one of our major threads on PowerPoint. The substantial PP threads on this board are:

PowerPoint does rocket science--and better techniques for technical reports
Account of the role of PP in the shuttle Columbia accident,
followed by many good alternative methods and examples for technical presentations.

Cancer survival rates: tables, graphs, and PP
Comparisons of methods for presenting cancer survival rates.

Plagiarism detection in PowerPoint presentations
An intriguing but under-explored topic.

PowerPoint and military intelligence
Mainly recent examples of leaked PP slides in the Iraq war.

Metaphors for presentations: Conway's Law meets PowerPoint.
Teaching and scientific papers are better metaphors for presentations
than marketing and computer programming.

Apple's Keynote vs. Microsoft's PowerPoint
Don't get your hopes up.

Lousy PowerPoint presentations: The fault of PP users?
A look at a rich and complex question:
What are the the causes of presentations?

A detailed analysis of PP is my 32-page booklet The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within,
which also appears as a chapter in Beautiful Evidence.

-- ET

Teaching : blackboards, tablets, and powerpoint

I read something recently which I thought you might like:

http://www.upscale.utoronto.ca/PVB/Harrison/BlackboardPptTablet/BlackboardPptTablet. pdf (linked from http://www.upscale.utoronto.ca/GeneralInterest/Pedagogy.html )

This is a study of how to teach physics to a large class, either by using multiple blackboards (the traditional way, but hard to enlarge for a huge room) or powerpoint (a disaster, of course) or by writing on a tablet PC.

They understand clearly what I haven't seen said elsewhere: first, that having the last few minutes' material still visible is crucial, you're always a little behind the speaker and need to refer back. Flipping back in powerpoint doesn't work, having a printout doesn't work well, having the original still visible is wonderful. They achieve this with the tablet by having multiple screens and using them in turn.

Second, that making the lecturer write in real-time provides a useful limitation on how much detail can be included, forcing him (or her) to focus on what's really important, and also communicates all sorts of extra clues about how he's thinking about the problem. For instance, one often writes an equation in a several steps, starting with what's important and then working backwards to fill in minor numerical factors and such. This is invisible in the final result (unless elaborately faked in powerpoint) but unavoidable writing it by hand.

-- Michael (email)

The first half of this TED talk is very reminiscent of Dr Vigh's zoomimage and the Raskin Center demo above; then Blaise Aguera y Arcas takes it to the next level by reconstructing and navigating the Notre Dame cathedral using Flickr imagery.

-- Niels Olson (email)

PowerPoint Does Tunnel Design

I saw today that the NTSB announced their suspected cause of the Big Dig tunnel collapse. I teach writing for engineers and I wanted to see if the reports of their investigation would be useful for my classes.

Though they do have a synopsis written in sentences and paragraphs all of their presentations are in PowerPoint:


Another example for my students on how not to present evidence. Will these government agencies ever learn?

Bill Wolff

-- Bill Wolff (email)

I work at an Insurance company and I can't tell you how much I enjoyed the essay and the comments -- A cavalcade of ...what? I'm not sure what to call it. In my blog, Rhetoricia, I wrote about our PPT practices in Biting the Bullet, but it's not very serious -- and there is much to say. I'll be mining these links for some time. Thanks to Anonymous, who directed me here.

-- Abby Shaw (email)

Update to link on October 23, 2005 post

External Tank Tiger Team's Interim Report, Fact Sheet http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/136219main_FS_ET_Tiger_Team_Report.pdf

ET Tiger Team Report - Part I : Interim Rev C 07 Oct 05 80 pages http://www.boeing.com/defense-space/space/returntoflight/reports/136149main_ET_tiger_team_report.pdf

-- Wiley Holcombe (email)

More matter with less art

In the current Communications of the ACM, Robert Gaskins essentially recommends that most people not use chartjunk. I'm not sure how this advice, retroactively applied, would have helped the NASA slides, which are very plain but highly hierarchical and confusing.


-- Jason Catena (email)

How can PowerPoint be used for serious documentation?

Recall from my essay that opens this thread that NASA used PowerPoint as engineering documentaton for the shuttle Return to Flight project (about $2 billion).

The dangers of PP for serious work are indicated in this CNET/NY Times report "Office 2003 Update Blocks Older File Formats:" here.

This is particuarly poignant because today (Janaury 4, 2008) NASA was undertaking repairs on the shuttle liquid fuel tank that was the major element in the Return to Flight project. Was the liquid fuel tank guage connector--today's issue, which has delayed the current launch for about a month--documented in PP?

[Update: Microsoft grants access to your files]

-- Edward Tufte

PowerPoint Does Science - Not

Reaching the end of a career in bureaucracy, I have experienced the rise and rise of PP and have sat through thousands of PP presentations, most of them about science.

For presenting images and movies, where seeing something really is better than just hearing about it, and pictures help the audience understand, PP is mighty convenient.

But words on slides? Fergeddaboudit. Too many people still read from their slides, so boring when you've already read the words on the whole slide while they are getting to the middle of the first point. You end up hating them for torturing you this way. If the slides have only a few words, they just distract you as you try to make the connection between what you're hearing and what's on the slide.

And those 70-slide presentations - scientists always want to say more than you want to hear. You want to shoot yourself at around slide #10. Orange text on magenta background - PP presentations provide irrefutable evidence that colour-blindness is more prevalent among scientists than in the general population. Teeny tiny invisible fonts. Indecipherable charts. Laser pointering each word. PP doesn't make bad communicators better - it just gives them the tools to be truly ghastly.

If people say: "Can I have a copy of your slides?", it's no compliment. You should have come prepared with a proper handout to take home instead.

-- Catherine Kraina (email)

As a former software engineer who now does mostly software sales and client relationship management, I have been subjected time and time again to demands for PP slide decks.

100% of these demands come from business partners and executive management. 0% come from current or potential customers.

Honestly, how often has your audience begged for PP?

Given the choice, I never use PP. Instead, I show actual working software and have analytical conversations about it and the needs of my clients. That this is vastly more efficacious should come as no surprise to readers of this thread.

PP at its best is a meeting agenda. 'Never go to a meeting without an agenda'. OK, so I produce and distribute an agenda ahead of time and pass it out at the meeting.

As a bonus, people can write notes and questions on their hard copies of the agendas.

Displaying said agenda in luminous leaden lockstep with PP is a good bit less than useless; it steals time and energy from human-to-human interaction.

So, I heartily encourage our competition to continue using PP!

-- Andre Lockhart (email)

How about this for analysis by powerpoint?


Nearly 190 pages of powerpoint slides by the EPA that clearly should be a technical report. Given the weight of the topic (Carbon legislation) and its impact upon our environment and economy.

There are so many opportunities to discuss bad information design within this document. I'd love to hear thoughts from this Forum on the "report".

-- Lee (email)


Lee - that is awesome. It's a parody, right? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

-- Catherine Kraina (email)

As Lee says, there are many opportunities to discuss bad information design. I'll just mention a few that occur to me immediately.

  1. The unsuitability of PowerPoint (or any sort of presentation software) for this sort of information is so obvious that it's not really worth discussing.
  2. Typographical ugliness. They packed so much text onto slide 6 that the subscript in the bottom line is almost lost. Perhaps they forgot that black isn't easy to read against a dark blue background.
  3. Come to that, the blue frame on every slide is an example of what ET calls chartjunk
  4. Also on slide 6, what is the merit of abbreviating "and" to "&" and "continued" to "con't" when there is room to write them in full?
  5. Slide 18. All that white space, but not enough room, apparently, to spell out "Greenhouse gas".
  6. Slide 19 illustrates something that I hate. Instead of labelling the different bands on the bands themselves (if necessary with little arrows) you have to refer to tiny little coloured squares at the bottom of the slide. It's not obvious to me why the blue for CO2 is not uniform. Less noticeably, the other colours also fade as one moves to the right: is this supposed to mean that the figures become more speculative towards the right? If so, where does it say so? As they seem to know how do subscripts, why don't they use them in CO2 etc. at in the key to the colours?
  7. Slide 29 is a better illustration of the problems with forcing the reader to go somewhere else to find out what the colours mean. When 20 different colours are used it is unrealistic to expect people to be able to match the key to the graph. Speaking for myself (though I think others on this board will agree) I prefer much more sobre colours than those used.
  8. Slide 31. If my interpretation above of what the non-uniform colours mean is correct, are we to assume that the amount of international credits is almost unknown for 2012, but very precisely known for 2050?
  9. Slide 61. In a long a complicated table faint grey backgrounds can be useful for guiding the eye along a long line, but this table isn't complicated enough for that to be an issue, and the backgrounds are too dark.
  10. Slide 67. Although more or less the same brownish orange is used on both the left and right halves of the slide, it means "allocated allowances" on the left but "States" on the right. (The green is more logical, meaning "Auctioned allowances" on the left and "Auctions" on the right.)
  11. Slide 76. Did the people who prepared these slides not have outline maps of Alaska and Hawaii, or did they think those Sates have little importance? Although in this slide they mostly use nice sobre colours, the boundaries between the States would be better in white.

I think that's (more than) enough from me.

-- Athel Cornish-Bowden (email)

I looked at the EPA greenhouse gas presentation closely enough to learn only this: In slides 104 through 189 you will find the six appendixes.

That's right, the appendixes.

To a slide show.

-- Cliff Tyllick (email)

Can you imagine sitting through a presentation of all 189 slides? And imagine that the presenter is as bad at public speaking as he/she is at preparing PowerPoint slides. I cringe.

-- Miklos Z. Kiss (email)

Every college student for the last decade can imagine sitting throught 189 powerpoint slides. They sit through that much almost every day.

-- Niels Olson (email)

Over 20 years in business and as a strategy consultant, I've seen lots of horrible powerpoint in Australia. And I freely confess lots of it was mine. While I understand the process of writing good business plans and information memorandums (which I do as key part of my consulting work, they are the business equivalent of scientific technical papers), I had failed to make the same magic happen in powerpoint.

I understand the power of the argument "just don't use the tool", however it is a key part of business decision making processes. How convenient were it that George Orwell's propaganda 'Ignorance is Strength' were true and I could ignore it - but I can't. So I decided to try and find a way of making the process better, for me and for my audiences. I had heard of Extreme Presentation by Dr Andrew Abela, http://extremepresentation.typepad.com/ , and in desperation one evening as I faced my own unedifying, long, confused, muddled PP pack, I took the time to go and visit the site and read the blog. It helped. So much that I flew from Australia to Atlanta, Georgia to do the one-day course. I have had to let go of lots of old baggage about how to use powerpoint. But that wasn't what helped me most - it was the discipline of organising the argument, understanding the problem, the audience and the medium's limitations (PP) before writing a single slide.

For me, Peter Kaplan said it best in his October 7, 2006 comment (which I can't find now I want to reference it...) that his good presentations were when he thought about the problem and its relationship to the data BEFORE writing PP slides, and his worst were when he started with the Header Slide. That has been my experience too. I was a poor user of PP because I had bad habits in using it, and did not understand and respect its limitations for engaging an audience. I used it to try to cover my weaknesses. These days I try to get the argument and evidence right and then choose my presentation tools - which may include PP, but not always.

After reading the thread of all the arguments, I feel the need to confess, as the PP user, that I have (hopefully now in the past) contributed to the problems of PP as a poor communication tool. Thanks from DownUnder, for the examples and further background on PP limitations.


-- Willow Forsyth (email)

Working in Higher Education, I agree that PowerPoint is almost always pure evil.

At a confeence a few years ago, the speaker (I believe it was Graham Webb) started off with the usual "death-by-bullets" presentation and then about halfway through he acknowledged that this was completely worthless and from then on all the slides were holiday pictures of his family! The audience immediately warmed to him and listened to everything he had to say. I just wish the hundred or so presenters who had preceded him that week had been half as original...

-- Daniel (email)

It's not only scientists who abuse powerpoint, but lawyers too.

Recently, I gave a one hour presentation on presentation skills for lawyers, in Melbourne (no need to fly to the US for one day of training to receive training in how not to abuse Powerpoint).

Even though I had mentioned I would be using my Macintosh and not be providing my slides in Powerpoint for the convenience of the organisers, on the day this came to nought.

Indeed, it came at great personal expense to NOT conform and use something other than Powerpoint (Apple's Keynote).

My presentation was due on the last day of the 4-day conference at a leading Melbourne convention centre, where lawyers were attending for mandatory professional development points. It was placed under "Business skills" and was booked out a few days before I was due to present.

Two days before, I attended the venue to view the room, and seek answers to some basic A/V issues I required: wireless mic for roaming, VGA cable to allow me to hook up my Mac at the front of the room, assessment of the projector's resolution, and placement of the screen.

I also sought permission to view a live presentation just to confirm my suspicions about how lawyers present, believing they, being knowledge workers, would be no better than my colleagues in psychology. I was amply rewarded by what I experienced to convince myself that my presentation - challenging the social conformity and tradition of using the cognitive style of powerpoint - was likely to be "on the money".

The A/V people had convinced the organisers that all slides should be made available to them as a Powerpoint file by all presenters to load onto an IBM Thinkpad at the back of the hall, hooked into a mixing panel for recording purposes. This was allegedly to speed up presentations in a seminar of several presenters. My small request to use my own laptop and speak not from a dais above the audience, but on the floor with the audience, produced a "Shock, horror, but we can do it for a fee" reaction.

In reality, all it needed was a stretch of VGA cable, and a length of audio cable (all inexpensive standard equipment surely at the disposal of a top flight convention centre).

But no. So fixated were they at doing things one and only one way, to speed up the transition of speakers on a multi-speaker panel (even though I had an hour to myself following by morning tea of 15 minutes) that the A/V company had to "hire" in special equipment to hook up my Mac, whose cost was to come from my fees. (Oh, plus $1500 for the morning tea that followed which also came from my fees.) I was quite castigated by the organisers for upsetting the apple cart, so to speak, by using my own equipment. It was to be the Powerpoint-way, or take the highway. My toll for taking the highway was a $750 fee reduction from my speaker's fee for the "special equipment" hire cost.

At session's end (it was a fast-paced hour's consolidation of a full day workshop I conduct) - yes, Mr. Tufte and Ted.com was given centre-stage for a good proportion of time - people came up to me to thank me for showing another way of presenting, and not killing them (their words) with powerpoint. Even though their daily work lives are filled with words, when it comes to presentations, it seems even lawyers have their limits.

I will be most curious to see the evaluations, which appear to be taking a long time to get to me. Even if they are high, somehow I don't imagine I'll be invited back, despite delivering a "full house - SRO" performance. Pride before the fall.

-- Les Posen (email)

I have been to numerous software engineering conferences over my long career and where my primary objective is simply to learn about new technologies, languages and tools which I can leverage in my software development work. The conferences I generally have attended include several concurrent tracks which focus on specific content areas such as testing, languages, methodologies, tools, etc.

As a personal rule, if the talk begins with a powerpoint presentation, I will generally get up and explore the other rooms and find out if there are better presentation being given else where. My personal experience is that where engineering related information is being presented, I learn much more from the presenters who simply use the development tool or language during the live presentation explaining how something works by showing it to the audience. Unfortunately, at work where attendance may not be optional, I simply must endure the heavy use of PP along with all the other engineers required to attend these meetings. So, basically where I am empowered to make a choice, PP does not stand a chance of holding my attendance.

-- Richard Cunday (email)

After completing a PowerPoint presentation for a meeting tomorrow, I felt impelled to search for Tufte's words on the problems of the cognitive style of PowerPoint.


I wish that I could find examples of project post-mortems from industry where the cognitive style of PowerPoint contributed to the failure of a project. Dead astronauts are one set of things, but showing that a company has lost money would really catch the attention of corporate executives.

I strongly suspect that such examples could be found by a suitably motivated industrial sociologist, with access to company email archives.

In my own experience I suspect that it is not a coincidence that the last major advance in CPU microarchitecture, the transition to out-of-order execution with the Intel P6 (and AMD K7, etc.) occurred just prior to the transition to PowerPoint.

Tufte, and many others, describe well how PowerPoint is inferior to formal or informal technical reports. Complex ideas are just too darned hard to fit within the constraints of a PowerPoint slide.

I'd like to mention additional problems with PowerPoint:

In many cases, PowerPoint presentations have replaced brainstorming, informal technical discussions. Instead of a group of engineers meeting by a whiteboard, to flesh out ideas via drawings that they later document with more formal written descriptions and more accurate drawings, it has now become commonplace for someone to make a proposal as a et of PowerPoint slides. Thus, a meeting of peers discussing an idea has been changed into a presentation, with a proposer and a set of reviewers.

Or, perhaps more than one proposal is prepared as PowerPoint slides. Thus, instead of cooperation, we start off with competing proposals; as often as not, competition between different organizations within a company.

A simple trick can help here: use two slide projectors. Project both proposals (if there are only two) side by side. Compare and contrast - informally, not as a hatchet job. Merge. Unfortunately, two slide projectors in the same conference room is quite rare; more often than not, the PowerPoint slides are not projected, but are viewed upon computer screens, and there is seldom enough screen area to display two PowerPoint presentations simultaneously. (That's another cost: you can split screens horizontally to display sections of text frm two different reports simultaneously, but this doesn't work with PowerPoint unless you have very good eyes, or are fortunate enough to have multiple monitors.)

The rise of PowerPoint seems to be related to "virtual teams" - organizations that are geographically dispersed, e.g. with team members in Oregon, California, Boston, Israel, India, etc. We so often attend phone meetings for such virtual teams. Lacking good virtual reality conference rooms, we listen to each other on the phone. We may use conferencing software such as NetMeeting or LiveMeeting, but overall it is usually just voices on a telephonce conference call, with PowerPoint slides on people's screens. PowerPoint slides provide a way of focussing such a conference call. Perhaps PowerPoint is a necessary evil for such virtual teams. But I wonder if this justifies the productivity lost due to the shortcomings of the cognitive style of PowerPoint.

A final point:

(Let's see how much trouble this gets me into.)

I have spent most of my career at Intel, in circumstances that made me especially aware of the transition to PowerPoint.

But I also spent 2 years, 2002-2004, at AMD, during a period of team in which AMD was widely perceived as being ahead at Intel (no credit me). I observed that AMD was significantly *behind* Intel with respect to its adoption of Microsoft tools such as PowerPoint and Word. Going from Intel to AMD in 2002 was like going back in time 7 years at Intel, to a time before PowerPoint. Most AMD engineers used UNIX tools and FrameMaker. Virtual teams where less common at AMD, and less needed given AMD's smaller size; but where they occurred AMD used videoconferencing. I attended videoconferences on almost a weekly basis at AMD; at Intel I have not attended a videoconference in more than 3 years.

However, I did observe, around the time I left AMD, eventually to return to Intel a few months later, that PowerPoint and other Microsoft tools were being rapidly adopted by AMD.

I suspect that it is not coincidental AMD has, in the intervening years, lost what at the time appeared to be a commanding lead over Intel in terms of technology.

I.e. I suspect that Intel adopted the cognitive style of PowerPoint earlier than AMD, and suffered a number of bad project decisions that led to AMD "taking the lead" over Intel. But AMD eventually adopted the cognitive style of PowerPoint, and I suspect that this, in part, has led to some of the problems that have allowed Intel to regain the lead. I.e. I suspect that both Intel and AMD are equally crippled by the cognitive style of PowerPoint now.

If the cognitive style of PowerPoint is so bad, why is it so successful? I hypothesize that PowerPoint is bad for the organization, but good for the PowerPoint presenter. PowerPoint looks good. If a PowerPoint proposal is competing against a proposal embodied in a technical report, other things being equal the PowerPoint proposal is more likely to win, and the PowerPoint user more likely to be promoted. If a PowerPoint proposal is competing against a proposal that contains both PowerPoint and a formal tech report, one might hope that the latter might win; but if the same manpower is used for each, the slides-only proposal will be more polished. I.e. the payoff per hour spent is higher with PowerPoint than it is in technical writing - from the point of view of the proposal writer, although not the organization.

This might be somewhat ameliorated by making it easier to prepare both a presentation and a technical report. Back in the pre-PowerPoint days, I used Framemaker templates and conditional text to accomplish this, allowing me to prepare slides and a technical report from the same document source code. Unfortunately, I do not know how to do this with Word and PowerPoint; perhaps it can be done with Visual Basic. I have hopes of using wikis to accomplish this unification of reports and presentations, and have made some progress; but it is by no means a finished toolchain.

In the meantime I use PowerPoint; I hate it when I vae to distort my ideas to fit into PowerPoint; and I woonder what incorrect conclusions I may be drawing when I receive PowerPoint.

- Andy "Krazy" Glew

"Mr. P6", the OOO, SpMT, and MLP guy, Computer architect (currently at Intel)

-- Andy Glew (email)

Regarding ET's post: "Can some Kindly Contributors help with this question, suggesting easy and inexpensive methods for producing the 4-page/1-piece-of-paper technical report?"

For a recent presentation on converting paper documents to hypermedia, I experienced some challenges printing an 11x17 layout; I hope these suggestions prove helpful to others.

Software: a combination of MS Word, Adobe Photoshop, and Adobe InDesign. For free options, consider OpenOffice, GIMP, and Scribus. Inkscape also looks interesting.

Workflow: edit the intro in MS Word; edit graphics in Photoshop; create two-page 11x17 layout in InDesign; import text and graphics to InDesign; save as print-quality PDF.

The PDF was copied to a USB flash drive and taken to Staples for printing. They were able to print a test page and complete the entire run while I waited for ~10 minutes. Cost was reasonable and the quality was high.

Speaking of quality: I attempted ET's above suggestion to print once and then copy multiple times. However, none of the self-service copiers were able to reproduce light-colored "callouts." Varying the lightness/darkness on the copier would force the callouts to either disappear or display too heavily. The prices at some big-box copyshops are similar for self-service copying and full-service printing. Be sure to check around, as the machines behind the counter will produce much higher quality prints.

Readers of the presentation will note that I took ET's advice to "steal from the best" in the center spread callouts.

-- Travis Thompson (email)

ET: "Can some Kindly Contributors help with this question, suggesting easy and inexpensive methods for producing the 4-page/1-piece-of-paper technical report?"
pdfnup may do what you want. For those using macs (and who have LaTeX installed) PDFNupMaker does the same thing with a graphical interface.

BW: "On some occasions I have used HTML to present information. It lends itself remarkably well to this task, especially with the browser in full-screen mode."
Plainview is a full screen browser (Mac only). As well as allowing web browsing in the normal way, it has a presentation mode in which a hot key can be used to step through a series of preselected webpages.

-- James Scott-Brown (email)

In this week's New Yorker magazine, there is a profile of General David Petraeus.


Disciples of Edward Tufte will wince (or worse) upon reading this paragraph:

Petraeus is a professional briefer, and with a PowerPoint slide before him he will slip into a salesman's rapid-fire patter. He illustrates his remarks with a laser pointer; he will swirl a bright dot of emerald light around a particular sentence fragment until a listener risks succumbing to hypnosis. Petraeus and his staff will discuss at length the shading of colors on a slide, or the direction of arrows depicting causality. When I asked, in a skeptical tone, about this passionate use of PowerPoint, the General responded in the staccato of the medium: "It's how you communicate big ideas--to communicate them effectively."

I'm hopeful that someone(perhaps ET himself) will come up with a good letter to the editor on this one. He certainly tee'd it up for us.

-- Roderick Jones (email)

For those struggling to make A3/B-size layouts:

Install a PDF writer if you don't already have one. CutePDF (Windows) works well and is free.

Start your word-processing or page layout program (Word, Writer, CAD, etc. For maximum irony you can use PowerPoint and use the drawing tools, text boxes, etc.!) and select the PDF writer as the printer. You should now be able to select from a wide variety of paper sizes. Select the size you want.

Do your layout.

Print to PDF and check that the page layout turns out OK.

Print from Adobe Acrobat, select the paper size you want and select "scale to fit paper". You can proof it on A4/letter and email it out to a print shop if required.

-- Donncha Butler (email)

Use sentences, not bullet grunts

He Wants Subjects, Verbs and Objects The New York Times, April 26, 2009. Richard Anderson, the chief executive of Delta Air Lines, strives to run efficient meetings and look for the intangibles of leadership when hiring executives.


-- Edward Tufte

Perhaps the Delta Airline executive wants subjects, verbs, and objects from his team. His own speech, however, is not inspiring, interspersed as it is with "you have to...", "you want to...", and "you know".

I also noticed his emphasis on problem solving, with no acknowledgement of how important it is to first understand the problem or, more likely, the system of interrelated problems. I would refer him to the writing and thinking of Ron Heifetz (adaptive vs. technical challenges) and Russell Ackoff (systems thinking).

-- Steve Byers (email)

PowerPoint does blackholes?

John Wheeler, eminent physicist, died in 2008 at the age of 96. To commemorate his contributions to physics, astronomy, cosmology, quantum mechanics and more, the April 2009 issue of Physics Today contains several wonderful articles about Wheeler.

The article, "John Wheeler, relativity, and quantum information", by his former-students Misner, Thorne and Zurek (all prominent physicists themselves, now) contains this photograph taken by Kip Thorne. The caption reads, "John Wheeler lecturing at a conference in Cambridge, UK, in 1971. Wheeler's style was to cover the blackboard with inspirational colored-chalk diagrams and phrases before the lecture, then work his way through them, one by one."

The blackboard looks like a precursor to today's PowerPoint presentation, but not poor PowerPoint full of bullet grunts. Instead, a sequence of diagrams and key phrases to guide the audience, and the speaker, through the material. Judging from the photo, this must have been quite the lecture...


-- Peter (email)

The picture of Professor Wheeler prompted me to finally
stitch together pictures of two blackboards I saw at Baylor
School of Medicine in 2005. To this day I have no idea who
drew them, but it is one of the Baylor Biochemistry professors.

UPDATE 14 May 2009: Juan Ruiz-Hau was kind enough to prepare these excellently corrected versions from the originals.


-- Niels Olson (email)

One fax = 2,500 PowerPoint slides

Here's one of my exhibits in The Drawing Room's FAX show:

-- Edward Tufte

There was an interview with Steve Balmer, Microsoft CEO, in the Sunday New York Times (Sunday Business, Page 2, "Meetings 2.0, At Microsoft"). When asked what it's like to be in a meeting run by Steve Balmer he says that he decided that what he calls the "long and winding road" meeting style of a few years ago at Microsoft isn't productive. He says that for most meetings, he now gets the materials in advance and he reads them. For the meeting he comes in and says "I've got the following four questions. Please don't present the deck".


-- Sam Perry (email)

"Eight PowerPoint Train Wrecks"

The first link below provides an interesting set of slides that makes some similar points to "Cognitive Style," and some very different ones. Shares the view of bullet points and silly transitions as boring and useless, but also eschews data density in favor of capturing attention and making simple points. Some of their very bad presentation graphics are not bad engineering diagrams, for the very same reason: their density.


Also see http://www.slideshare.net/thecroaker/death-by-powerpoint

These are dramatic illustrations of how the goal of the presentation shapes the way we present "data" (to the degree that marketing slides are "data").

Are we trying to get a point across, or are we trying to make the data speak for itself and promote clear thinking.

kind regards,


-- Todd I. Stark (email)

PowerPoint and scientific fraud

July 14, 2009, Wall Street Journal Blog

"The oversight [of scientific data] is now vastly diminished. Even within the laboratory environment, many students and post-docs and scientists are not showing raw data anymore. They're showing PowerPoint presentations. That gives the individual, if they're so inclined, the ability to manipulate data right up-front. Unless a mentor is vigilant, there's a real breakdown."

--John Dahlberg, director, Division of Investigative Oversight in the Office of Research Integrity, Dept. Health and Human Services


-- Prem Thomas (email)

Here is a fine example of the four-page handout:


Everything in paragraph form, fairly dense (but not overwhelming) content, and clear illustrations.

Originally from this post:


-- Daniel F. Thornton (email)

For the past ten years, we've been running a very successful technical conference without ever resorting to a single PP slide:


We're all fans of Dr. Tufte's, and hundreds of people have benefited from the elimination of this communicable disease, PP.

Many thanks.

-- Gerald M. Weinberg (email)

A3 Printing in MSWord

I work in local government finance and performance monitoring and evaluation. Communicating complex financial and interrelated performance data to managers and elected officials is always challenging. I have migrated to the single 11x17 layout over the years, encouraged by a Tufte seminar years ago, and now use it frequently.

A straightforward way to produce an A3, or 11x17, document in MS Word works well for up to four discrete pages. First, write the report in Word set up for standard US Letter, 81/2 x 11. Print and proof as needed. Then, go to Page Setup, on the Margins tab find Multiple Pages and set that to Book Fold. Set Orientation to Landscape. On the Paper tab select A3 or 11x17, as your printer is configured. It's helpful to set the printer to double-sided. Click okay, then print. This is fast and straightforward, but experiment some to get your content to flow correctly! Pagination is not always what you expect at first, but easily controlled with practice.

I use this to encourage my staff to write brief, high-density reports and remove the technical hurdles. However, it does not handle a full A3 spread layout very well - and those are very useful when we want to present more complex graphs with supporting data.

-- Randy Webster (email)

I took Presenting Data and Information a few years ago in Boston while at another company, but ET's influence has stuck with me.

In my first year at my new employer, I can confidently credit the course with my win of an Individual Achievement Award in recognition of my technical analysis briefings of a systems performance problem which I resolved, as well as my recent win of my company's 2009 Information Systems Excellence Award in the Innovation category.

My "Quick Start Guide" for the roll-out of a crucial new capability in the network was designed and built by the book (the Tufte Book) - on an 11x17 folded sheet, multiple columns with embedded illustrations, plus full bleed thanks to the commendable graphic design and printing services staff - and it was a resounding, dazzling success. It turned heads all the way up the chain of command, and was received with delight by the users.

I was enthusiastically told by an IS department leader that nothing of the kind had ever been seen before in any other rollout in IS, and it represented just the kind of thing that our department should be doing more of. I and my colleagues stood ready on rollout day for questions and problems, but heard only the faint hum of heightened productivity.

While I fortunately didn't have to cope with the mechanics of the layout in Quark Express, I was also fortunate to be working with a designer with whom I could be specific and detailed in my vision of the final document, as I referred to my PD&I notes and materials.

My users found it helpful that I prepared two PDF versions of the document for the eRoom document archive - one as the original two-page 11x17 format, and the other a four-page letter-size version to permit people without access to a large-format printer to produce a copy of the document, single- or double-sided.

-- Michael Pelletier (email)

A quantum leap perhaps? "PowerPoint makes us stupid," Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina." From a NY Times article on the danger of PowerPoint in the U.S. military.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/27/world/27powerpoint.html?hp Accessed online on 4/26/2010 and to be in print on 4/27/2010.

Regards to all as I await Professor Tufte's return to Dallas for another lecture, Ron Hekier

-- Ron Hekier (email)



for another death by PP story and a great example.

-- Andreas (email)

Randy Webster's December 22, 2009 contribution for printing A3 (11x17) from within Microsoft Word was helpful, but Word 2007 seems to differ slightly from his instructions.

Below are the steps and settings I found which successfully printed front and back on 11x17 from within Word 2007:
*from the Page Layout tab: Size > More Paper Sizes
*from the Paper tab: Paper Size > Ledger (11x17)
*from the Margins tab: Orientation > Landscape. Multiple Pages > Book Fold. Sheets per booklet > 4.
*when printing, set to double-sided

I also compiled these directions into a Word 2007 document which is itself set to this format. It is available at http://www.ods.usf.edu/Presentations/Tufte-11x17-MS-Word-4-page-layout.doc

Travis Thompson

-- Travis Thompson (email)

Our Amazing Planet puts the depth of the Deepwater Horizon well (not just the wellhead at 5,000ft) in context, from the highest mountain to the deepest trench (with a lot of other information contextualizing the depth and height):


Behold the power of a single graph to communicate what I think would lose much if divided into slices (or slides). One might want a pan-and-zoom affordance, but its absence makes the magnitudes more striking. (My only complaint is that they forgot to add a metric system scale as well.)


-- Jose Camoes Silva (email)

A document published on Wikileaks suggests that not only is PowerPoint alive and well in strategic planning, but that the military has lower standards than the aerospace industry.

Wikileaks publishes NATO's Metrics Brief 2007/2008 as a PDF. It's possible that it suffered while being converted from PowerPoint (font substitution would explain many of the text layout errors); that doesn't excuse some of the crimes against intelligence that litter the document (exercise for the reader: why is the word 'access' asterisked every time it appears on page 11?)

But first, a warning to those who might want to look at it. This is an example page:

-- Hayley Watson (email)

In the above text Scott L Mitchell asked for "an example of skilled information design in a PowerPoint presentation". I humbly submit the following example which could easily be converted from ViewGraph to PowerPoint.

In 1980 when I was working with GSI in Dharan, Saudi Arabia each work group made weekly presentations of work progress using ViewGraphs with a general format of Accomplishments, Problems, and Plans.

My work was development rather than production and my computer runs were increasingly being bumped in favour of production computer runs. In order to achieve some visibility for my plight I prepared a killer presentation using a ViewGraph with absolutely nothing on it.

At the weekly meeting each department made their presentation and when it was my turn. I placed the blank ViewGraph on the overhead projector and began discussing the week's accomplishments, problems, and plans with frequent reference to the blank ViewGraph to illustrate the absence of said accomplishments, problems, and plans.

Within the first minute I had the attention of everyone in the room. I could see the production guys slumping in their chairs, managers sitting up in theirs, and everyone else trying to contain their mirth. Half an hour after the meeting my development computer time was scheduled and I was back in business.

-- Peter J Smith (email)

IAEA public presentations not reassuring

I'm in Japan, participating in the evacuation operation. We are of course as interested as anyone as to the status of the reactors and radiation and while we have various data products coming in, we are also trust but verify by checking the open source products. The IAEA marine office in Monaco have produced some exceptionally unhelpful bar graphs. Presumably they would have distributed data in tabular form, except their managers wanted a deck.

Conversely, the IAEA blog text is far more informative, full of hard-gained, albiet often solitary, data.

-- Niels Olson (email)

Handouts in presentations: the 2011 Tarski lectures at UC Berkeley

In the 2011 Tarski lectures at UC Berkeley, the speaker, Stanford mathematician and logician Johan van Benthem used handouts, some projected formulas and diagrams on transparencies, and chalk-on-board.

The handouts were a great tool, since results in modal logic need some perusal and consideration after the talk (between lectures), which would have been impossible in the absence of the paper take-away.

Photo of the handouts (not good quality, computer camera): http://www.flickr.com/photos/josecamoessilva/5620219710

Comparing with a lecture on P vs NP the previous week, by Ron Fagin (computation "Fagin Theorem" Fagin) was very entertaining, but after a week without any take-away paper, very little remains. (I do recall that Deolalikar proof was wrong, but not why.)

His presentation was very good, with computer projected animation, etc, and he was a good presenter -- he's a corporate mathematician, so he has to make presentations to normal people -- but the details escaped memory. That's kind of a problem in a math talk.

-- Jose C Silva (email)

Rama Hoetzlein presents a wealth of information on the Fukushima reactor events, in true Tufte style, on his website.


-- Ken Kubiak (email)

"One of the first things [Steve] Jobs did during the product review process was ban PowerPoints. `I hate the way people use slide presentations instead of thinking,' Jobs later recalled. `People would confront a problem by creating a presentation. I wanted them to engage, to has things out at the table, rather than show a bunch of slides. People who know what they're talking about don't need PowerPoint.'"

-- Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), 337.

-- Curt (email)

Fascinating thread that led me to realise my unease with PP is not unfounded. However, as a research scientist who often needs to communicated nested concepts, multiple forms of data often with explanatory notes, and, particularly for me, complext genetic networks, the lack of a suitable alternative is frustrating. Looking at the old-style blackboards above makes me jealous, but not only would it take days to compile, but I challenge any conference facility to provide a blackboard these days!

Earlier in the year I *thought* I had cracked an alternative: Prezi (http://prezi.com/). (I cant find reference to this yet in this thread). This is not dissimilar to the idea of embedded hi-res files that can be panned and scrolled as mentioned above. Instead of linear slide layout, the presentation pans or zooms in and out to alter focus/content. I thought that for presenting genetic networks, where local detail is easily lost in a large cluster, this would allow the larger picture to be zoomed in and out from. However! After seeing several presentations using this software I am rethinking this. 1. The initial reaction of many people is disorientation and stomach lurch. Immediately losing all concentration and thread. 2. The gimmic of zooming around the space often supplants all retention of the content. 3. Interestingly, polar to the problems outlined with PP, when badly done, sub-points or tangents are equally weighted with key points, with the audience unable to maintain a concept of context. 4. User error, style is substituted for content.

Are these problems from lack of familiarity experienced by all new programs that will deminish over time? Or is this going to be an inherent problem? How did people first adjust to slide shows in general??

Something that should address the problems of PP turns out to be almost as bad, are we destined to never having a solution?

I am considering using this software, with (well made) traditional loinear slides except for the zooming in on sub sections of a largenetwork, at which point this *could* be useful, but this seems like making an unholy chimera out of two evils!

Thoughts? Cheers! Bort

-- Bort Edwards (email)

This is a wonderful piece, and it is so true -- PowerPoint is far too heavily used. As you say, meetings should focus on written material, not just slides projected on a wall. I've just realized a more insidious aspect of this -- not only has PowerPoint allowed the presenter to avoid having to prepare such written material, it has allowed the attendees the illusion of not having to prepare for the meeting. I encounter a widespread assumption, so fundamental that many are not even aware of it and would argue passionately against it, that doing anything more than reading the agenda before attending a meeting is optional and, in most cases, not necessary. After all, we're busy people -- if it's important, they'll bring it up at the meeting, right?

But we cannot come to a meeting in a virginal state, blank slates waiting for the PowerPoint to pour information into our brains. We have to know something about what we're discussing or we are wasting everybody's time. Worse, not only is it disrespectful to come unprepared, but the fact that no one realizes they are unprepared highlights that no one knows what they don't know. The "unknown unknowns" that our former VP Dick Cheney spoke of -- they're growing as we become more accustomed to this mode of operation. PowerPoint, by reducing information to slides, makes people feel they don't need to prepare more and don't need to go any further in depth. After all, if it was important, it would be up there, wouldn't it?

The slides can never tell the whole story, and it fills me with despair that we apparently no longer know this. I think the "paperless office" drive is further aggravating it. Employees are widely discouraged from printing out material, and this means it is less likely for a presenter to supplement their slides with printed material. And if the attendees are basking in the illusion of not needing to prepare, they aren't bringing their own printed material. And that in turn means that unless they've brought a computer with them, they will be almost completely unable to regard any information other than what is currently on the screen at any given time, giving them an enforced tunnel vision that can be very damaging.

Mr Tufte criticizes one slide for saying "ramp" instead of "material that impacted the wing". The latter more clearly communicates the seriousness of the situation, but would cause the text to wrap into a second line. I have little doubt the engineer who prepared this slide opted for the shortest possible description in order to make it fit on the slide. PowerPoint slides are pathetically small canvases on which to work, and this is a serious problem. I've created PowerPoint presentations in my time, and have been forced to do this sort of thing myself. I'm not proud of it. I'm not a very big fan of PowerPoint. If I had the time and my druthers, I'd rather write it out in Word and then create the PowerPoint slides to accompany it, but how often does that happen? Not often, alas.

-- Calli Arcale (email)

Just for fun: I work at an aerospace company and we often refer to this speciality as "Power Point Engineering". Indeed, It is amazing how much time is dedicated to PP in lieu of technical reports. Thanks.

-- rodrigo (email)



my asymptote is bigger than your asymptote.

the procession reminded me of the cover of Dr. Tufte's essay.

all the best,


-- B Wasserman (email)

I'm not surprised to find there exists such thoroughgoing and analytical criticism of PowerPoint.

I am shocked, however, that engineers and other technical professionals consider PowerPoint an appropriate medium in which to convey information and analysis. I gather from this thread that teachers of such subjects also, use PowerPoint as a teaching medium. This makes we want to revoke my donations to my alma mater.

Not being in a technical or scientific field myself, I'd have thought that making any significant decision on the basis of a slide pack would violate the rigorous standards of evidence and proof that (I thought) characterized such fields. That significant decisions are routinely made on that basis suggests that I should reconsider whether I really want to board that airplane the next time I travel.

I am a lawyer and practice in the field of international arbitration. The cases I work on tend to be factually complex and data-intensive. Typically, the two parties will submit hundreds of documents as primary evidence, together with witness statements and reports from experts on technical subjects (such as the calculation of damages). They will also submit hundreds of pages of written arguments, which attempt to organize the factual evidence persuasively.

After all of this has been submitted over the course of many months, there is an oral hearing, usually lasting a week or two, at which the witnesses and experts are cross-examined. At the opening of the hearing, each side typically presents a summary of its case orally.

When I first practiced in this field, I was astonished to find that PowerPoint is the standard medium for the oral presentation. It may be useful for setting out the high-level outline of the speaker's argument, but that's about it. Yet we lawyers often present excerpts of the documentary evidence and witness testimony via PowerPoint. In our field, which is supposed to have its own standards of rigor in proof (albeit not those of science), PowerPoint creates pathologies similar to those you describe for engineers. At least in our case, the adversarial system limits how manipulative the presentation can be, because the other side will go to the underlying data and documents and attack misleading presentations. If that makes PowerPoint a bit less dangerous, it does not make it any more useful.

-- J. J. Gass (email)

Daniel Kahneman, the only psychologist to win the Nobel Prize for Economics, explains his theory of System 1 and System 2 in his book 'Thinking, fast and slow'. System 1 thinking is continually monitoring and assessing and making assumptions and noticing patterns. It is easily deceived, and the order in which events occur can affect assumptions.

For example, the correlation between the answers to the following questions depends entirely upon the order in which they are presented:

How happy are you these days? How many dates did you have last month?

produces a correlation near zero. Reversing the order produces a result just about as high as correlations between psychological measures can get.

System 2 thinking, such as mental calculation or detailed examination, involves effort that can be measured by the consumption of glucose by the brain and cannot be maintained indefinitely. It therefore is used as sparingly as possible (Kahneman calls it 'lazy') and is only too happy to accept plausible priming of a solution by System 1.

The chances therefore of a set of short statements on a PowerPoint slide in no particular order creating an environment for informed debate would appear to be slight.

-- Martin Ternouth (email)

In this week's New Yorker, Roz Chast has the last word (literally) on Power Point:


I think the link will work for non-subscribers.


-- Michael Kearney (email)

Leftovers from original Columbia thread (2003)

-- Edward Tufte

How do you folks like Beamer (LaTeX package)? I didn't see any mention of it. Typically the presentations I see in Beamer are better thought-out and more engaging, although I'm not sure if it isn't just because the speakers have more forethought (a good example is the set of Abu-Mostafa's machine learning talks on YouTube). I note that you can organize information very flexibly -- slide presentation to poster, thesis to slide presentation, etc.

-- Trevor (email)

Powerpoint infecting iPad apps

I came across this most-fascinating discussion in a round-about way. In the process of reviewing a physician app for iPhones and iPads that's called Pediatric pocket, I was struck by the similarity between how the app presented information and how PowerPoint is typically displays it. Both use terse terms and various levels of bulleted lists under the impression that creates clarity.

I faulted the app for a number of failings, including erratic entries and not very useful information. Diseases such as cystic fibrosis had no entry. Sickle cell was mentioned but had nothing about treating a crisis, one of the most painful events someone can experience.

But the apps chief failing was that Powerpoint-like format with its inability to distinguish between facts. Procedures that a family physician might use to diagnosis leukemia, such as a simple blood draw, weren't separated from those a regional treatment center would use, such as a bone marrow aspiration. Everything was just a series of bullets or a list. For kids with leukemia, that's awful. A bone marrow aspiration should only be done when absolutely necessary.

Those who'd like to see how a Powerpoint structure translated into an iPhone app looks can find it here:


I'll also add my bit to why the weather service still uses all caps for hurricane reports. As others have noted, it's probably just a legacy issue, but the reason that legacy began may be rooted in the military.

In the mid-sixties, I worked as a contractor at a radar site that was one of the tracking stations for the Mercury and Gemini programs, as well as for the development of laser-guided smart bombs (Eglin AFB). Our daily schedule came to us over an encrypted teletype in all uppercase.

The teletype could handle lowercase, but apparently the encryption system could not. That's probably not accidental. If you look at the German Enigma machine, it also made no distinction between upper and lower case. I suspect that's because case, however it is encrypted, might give a bit of added information for those attempting to break a code. If a word is in uppercase (in English), then it's likely to be a proper name such as a person or place. Read about how Enigma was broken and you'll see that every clue, however tiny, was exploited, even knowing the initials of a particular radio operator's girl friend. Having words in uppercase would have been of enormous benefit to the code breakers but of not real use to those who were intended to get the message.

--Michael W. Perry, author of My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer

-- Michael W. Perry (email)

I find this fascinating,but feel compelled to note that NASA specialized in the art of high concept failure before the PC existed.

The Apollo capsule fire (an avoidable and predictable event) happened because optimism and deadline pressure trumped design, common sense and simple standards of protocol that are observed every day in welding shops etc. around the world.

NASA has applied similar thinking for years. PP is simply an easier tool to hide risk assessment and enumeration.

My roommate in college was an Engineering Major. He had to take one just one course in English. As part of the culture, Engineers seem by and large proud that they don't read and don't have to write much.

Lack of lower case pre-dates teletype--Hellschreiber, a non-synchronous quasi-digital mode that preceded teletype didn't have lower case either.

Legend in IT has it that any message of any importance can be delivered in three minutes orally or in fifty words or less of text.

-- Gordon Cooper (email)

Threads relevant to PowerPoint:
Don't get your hopes up.
Compares tables, slopegraphs, barcharts for showing cancer survival rates.
A look at a rich and complex question: What are the the causes of presentations?

An intriguing but under-explored topic.
Mainly recent examples of leaked PP slides in the Iraq war.