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The scourge of PowerPoint

If you ever have to do presentations to groups of people, you may find this useful.

I’m a big fan of Edward Tufte — he’s a man who has made a career out of teaching people how to represent their thoughts and arguments in an elegant and useful manner. Wikipedia notes that the New York Times calls him “the Leonardo da Vinci of data”. Not surprisingly, then, he has a big issue with PowerPoint (buy his brilliant essay The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint — it only costs $7 but will change your corporate life. Just make sure that everyone who works for you, and everyone you work for, reads it too).

What baffles me is how so many people in the corporate world rely on a tool that is so clearly flawed and designed in a way that actually works against them.

PowerPoint encourages you to think in bullet points and to summarise the most complex thoughts into neat sound bites that can be put on to a slide with fancy, often meaningless graphics (Tufte calls them “chartjunk”). It forces you to present chapter headings littered with boardroom jargon. The more meaningless the phrase, the cleverer the presenter looks. It purports to instil discipline and clarity, and to encourage simplicity. But in so doing PowerPoint shuns the beauty of complexity and dumbs down both presenter and audience.

Unlike Tufte, I do think that there is a time and a place where PowerPoint is useful. It’s just that when you need to make a sensible, reasoned, intelligent argument for something, there is no substitute for carefully reasoned prose. To try to force your argument into a series of arbitrarily constructed bullet points and hierarchies is nonsensical when you are trying to advocate a position, present a strategy that responds to a complex set of environmental factors, or report back on any activity that wasn’t purely linear and one-dimensional.

As part of his essay, Tufte draws on the work of Peter Norvig who famously took Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and adapted it to PowerPoint using the software’s Auto Content Wizard. It’s an inspired illustration of the point that — when it comes to conveying sentiment, passion and new and inspirational ideas — PowerPoint is weak and deeply flawed.

In the course of my real job I present a lot. I haven’t, yet, been brave enough to throw PowerPoint out the window and employ some of Tufte’s techniques. If I do, I’ll let you know how it goes.