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Lousy PowerPoint presentations: The fault of PP users?

The common defense of bad PowerPoint presentations is that they are the "fault of the user,
not the tool."

This point raised by PP advocates in fact provokes a rich and complex question about
nearly any type of expressive performance: What are the causes of presentations?

Here are excerpts on these matters from my essay on PowerPoint:

-- Edward Tufte

Technical reports, not PP

After attending Mr. Tufte's Portland seminar, I gave a presentation on the content to my colleagues at work. I focused on how what I learned could be used to improve the design of our own software. Naturally, I couldn't in good conscience use a PowerPoint for this.

Instead I wrote a one-page, double-sided report highlighting the seminar's scope and detailing various salient points. I then created a number of design ideas using what I learned. PowerPoint was employed as a blank delivery mechanism for the new designs. I simply copied and pasted items from various Visio storyboards, Word tables, and PaintShop mocks onto completely blank slides to use as visual aids for my talk. There was no text and only five slides were needed. This allowed me to use presentation mode to easily flip through the designs without having to change applications or filter out irrelevant elements on the fly. And because I didn't waste time distilling my report into little text bullets, I could focus on creating good design ideas to share.

I was amazed at how smoothly the presentation went. The group read through the report while I elaborated on the details and the projected designs gave them a focal point as well as needed context for the theory. There was a high level of understanding and feedback was pointed and content rich. Time of the meeting was reduced by 50% compared to my initial expectations.

I also had a number of compliments on my designs (thank you Mr. Tufte) as well as on the presentation itself. The best part is that, for those who missed it, I can simply hand them a copy of the report and point them to the designs.

-- Venecia Rauls (email)

Steve Ballmer doesn't want to see slide decks: too inefficient

Another example of how it may be more effective to distribute handouts/reading material before a presentation versus enslaving a meeting to a deck of slides comes from Steve Ballmer From "Meetings, Version 2.0, at Microsoft", in the New York Times' Corner Office column (

New York Times: "What's it like to be in a meeting run by Steve Ballmer?"

Steve Ballmer: "I've changed that, really in the last couple years. The mode of Microsoft meetings used to be: You come with something we haven't seen in a slide deck or presentation. You deliver the presentation. You probably take what I will call "the long and winding road." You take the listener through your path of discovery and exploration, and you arrive at a conclusion.

That's kind of the way I used to like to do it, and the way Bill [Gates] used to kind of like to do it. And it seemed like the best way to do it, because if you went to the conclusion first, you'd get: "What about this? Have you thought about this?" So people naturally tried to tell you all the things that supported the decision, and then tell you the decision.

I decided that's not what I want to do anymore. I don't think it's productive. I don't think it's efficient. I get impatient. So most meetings nowadays, you send me the materials and I read them in advance. And I can come in and say: "I've got the following four questions. Please don't present the deck." That lets us go, whether they've organized it that way or not, to the recommendation. And if I have questions about the long and winding road and the data and the supporting evidence, I can ask them. But it gives us greater focus."

-- Vaibhav Vaish (email)

Threads relevant to PowerPoint:
Don't get your hopes up.
Compares tables, slopegraphs, barcharts for showing cancer survival rates.

An intriguing but under-explored topic.
Account of the role of PP in the shuttle Columbia accident, followed by many good alternative methods and examples for technical presentations.
Mainly recent examples of leaked PP slides in the Iraq war.

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