Business 2.0, May 15, 2003
Unplug That Projector!
By Jimmy Guterman
Hi, my name is Jimmy. I'm 40 years old, I make my living as a consultant, and I've never created a presentation using Microsoft PowerPoint. Clients occasionally look at me as if I'm from Mars when I show up without slides. I've found PowerPoint presentations to be superficial ways of delivering information. They are not actual presentations; they are, in fact, speaker's notes on which a real presentation should be built.
I'm not alone. Scott McNealy famously banned PowerPoint presentations from Sun Microsystems (SUNW) (although one suspects that may have as much to do with his distaste for Microsoft (MSFT)). And the shortcomings of the program have been the subject of countless crabby columns and amusing parodies. Ever wondered what the Gettysburg Address would have been like had Abraham Lincoln delivered it via PowerPoint? Visit this site to find out.
Most people in business must disagree with us detractors, because trillions of PowerPoint slides are produced every year. I have yet to find a rigorous examination at a fundamental level of why PowerPoint stinks and what might be better. Until now.
Early on in his astonishing new booklet The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, Edward R. Tufte quotes Louis Gerstner's recent autobiography, focusing on a moment when the then-new IBM (IBM) chief switches off the slide projector of one of his subordinates and says, "Let's just talk about your business." It's a rare moment of business clarity: Gerstner, beginning his remaking of the venerable technology giant, is telling his staff that technology is getting in the way of understanding business. It's a radical thought. The next time you sit in a conference room and view slide after slide of bullet points, it's worth wondering whether you're learning anything other than how the presenters organize their thoughts.
In the 24-page booklet, Tufte gallops with apparent glee through numerous examples of bad PowerPoint. He tears apart "the dreaded build sequence" (a series of slides, each of which reveals a single new line of text). He writes that Harvard School of Public Health templates for presentations "emulate the format of reading primers for six-year-olds," offering a side-by-side of the Harvard slides and just such a primer to prove his point.
Tufte is not merely having fun here. In many companies, important decisions come out of meetings in which PowerPoint slides define the agenda. If the method for making the decisions is childish, what sort of decisions do you think will come out of that method? As is clear from his books (The Visual Display of Quantitative Design, Envisioning Information), Tufte is on a mission to make data presentation clearer, more useful, and more powerful. In fact, when Tufte considers how presentations can be better, he returns to his usual argument regarding density of information. He notes that "data graphics based on PowerPoint templates show 10 percent to 20 percent of the information found in routine news graphics." Slides have to deliver more information to be relevant.
The problem with PowerPoint is that instead of being a visual tool used to illustrate certain elements in a presentation, the slides have become the whole presentation. Sure, there are some outstanding public speakers who can use PowerPoint with wit and confidence, but those presentations account for a small fraction of those trillions of slides generated each year. Just as using a word processor doesn't make someone a better writer, structuring presentations with PowerPoint won't improve the quality of an individual's ideas. If you need to present information to others and you want your presentations to matter, heed what Tufte has to say. At $7, his booklet costs less than a box of blank overhead slides -- and it's a much better investment.
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