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PowerPoint: Guilty But Redeemable


Guest Post: Michael Hamill Remaley

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of joining many fellow Communications Network members for a webinar in which PowerPoint was put on trial.  It was a fun format in which the presenters truly relished their roles as prosecuting and defending attorneys. Strong cases were made by both sides.  

The counts laid out against PowerPoint:

  • PowerPoint has changed the way we communicate for the worse.
  • PowerPoint, by its very nature, forces presenters to create bad presentations.
  • PowerPoint should be banned from use by all doers-of-good.

Colin Rowan prosecuted with gusto.  He showed several examples of typically atrocious PowerPoint slides with huge amounts of text and confusing visuals, including the now infamous Department of Defense chart of Afghanistan strategy.  He quoted and endorsed the charge made by Edward Tufte, information design expert, that PowerPoint forces a “relentless sequentiality” that alters the nature of information relationships in addition to contributing significantly to mind-numbingly boring presentations.  He predicted (accurately) that the defense would say that it is your (the PowerPoint user) fault that presentations turn out poorly and that the software itself is programmed for ease and flexibility that simply isn’t used.  But, said Rowan, mediocrity really is built into the functionality of PowerPoint itself.

Andy Goodman took up a vigorous defense of PowerPoint.  In an apt analogy, he compared the blame assigned PowerPoint to that which is often ascribed to guns, and he basically sounded the NRA defense: “It’s not PowerPoint that kills presentations, it is people that kill presentations.”  From my point of view, I think it is a perfect analogy, although not a flattering one for PowerPoint, since many webinar participants may have agreed with me that guns are inherently dangerous and ought to be available for only very specific purposes by highly trained experts.  So if PowerPoint is a weapon that can be used for good or evil, should it really be in the hands of those who have no idea how to use it?

As the trial moved forward, the prosecution claimed that the PowerPoint template – with its blah title and ever-shrinking text format – is a major part of the problem. The defense countered that you don’t have to use the template – in fact, it’s best to just start with a blank slate.  Further, use of illustrative pictures and only minimal, but engaging text makes for high impact.  Rowan objected that high quality images from sources like Getty and Corbis cost a lot of money, which puts them out of the reach of nonprofits and foundations. Not true, said Goodman.  And he named many spots to obtain low-cost or no-cost images: iStockPhoto.com, stockXchange, Liquid Library, PunchStock.com and Snapfish.com. He said Flickr’s Creative Commons section is a great source for completely free photos. He noted that the Wikipedia discussion of public domain image resources is a good place to start.

The prosecution then took up the topic of complexity, asserting that many of us work in fields and on issues that are so complex that they don’t lend themselves to the simple charts and illustrative pictures that Goodman said should be used in PowerPoint presentations.  He said, essentially, that most social policy folks are “too smart” to be able to think about good design(!?!?!).

The defense again used the prosecution’s examples of poorly designed slides to show how, with just a little bit of time, thought and logic, the very same information could be presented in exponentially more compelling ways.  He said that there are very simple techniques that are entirely learnable – even by the smartest among us.

The Q&A portion of the webinar produced many important inquiries about…

  • How to get program people to think about presentation design as they are composing so that communications people don’t get stuck trying to make sense of things later;
  • When should PowerPoint absolutely NOT be used;
  • What are the maximum number of words that should reasonably go on a slide; and
  • What other presentation tools might be of better use than PowerPoint in particular situations.

All of these questions were answered adroitly by the presentation leaders and can be heard in full on the webinar playback (to which I recommend listening!)

In the end, the jury (all the webinar participants) cast its votes and rendered its verdict on the charges against PowerPoint.

  • Has PP changed the way we communicate for the worse? – the jury found PowerPoint GUILTY.  (67% said guilty, 33% said not guilty).
  • Does PP force presenters to create bad presentations? – the jury found PowerPoint NOT GUILTY.  (17% said guilty, 83% said not guilty)
  • Should PP be banned from use by all doers-of-good? – the jury gave PowerPoint a REPRIEVE. (Only 7% said it should be banned, 93% said it should not be banned)

The jury essentially let PowerPoint off the hook, free to incite mayhem in lecture halls and panel discussions from coast to coast.  The argument that the weapon itself was not guilty of the innumerable, indescribably heinous crimes perpetrated by deadly tedious presenters over the years clearly resonated as the defense’s examples of a few heroic uses of PowerPoint to save an otherwise defenseless speaker won the day.

Knowing that PowerPoint will now be with us for the foreseeable future, we owe it to ourselves to learn how to use it responsibly*.  Not unlike the NRA’s gun safety classes, The Goodman Center can help you learn how to not shoot yourself in the foot.  Andy, I don’t know how you sleep at night.

*The presenters also named several resources for those who want to read more about how to create effective presentations, including:

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Michael Hamill Remaley, a regular contributor to the Communications Network blog, is a communications consultant and also director of Public Policy Communicators NYC.

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