If you're a working scientist these days, you have no choice but
to use presentation software. Okay, if you are a genius or have
tenure (lots of tenure), you can do chalk talks or use your old
overhead transparencies, but the rest of us gotta make it slick.
A few years ago I was told by another youngster that you really
had to use Powerpoint for job talks, and it's more true now --
people aren't even embarrassed to poke fun at speakers who
use transparencies, in an isn't-it-cute-that-you're-so-backwards way.
Let's face it, it's great to show plots, movies, and to re-edit
your presentation without a stack of transparencies, smelly markers,
and an X-Acto knife. But, we all know Powerpoint is the crack of
presentation styles: easy to start on, hugely addictive,
and capable of reducing its users to desperate, hollow-eyed
shadows of their former selves. Well, maybe it really brings the
pain to the main sufferers of the hollow-eyed effect: the audience.
Whom presentations were supposed to be for, anyway.
Even aside from the insane-text-flying-in-from-the-side disease,
Powerpoint-style presentations reduce communication to its
lowest common denominator:
Good graphic design takes a bit of thought. Ppt makes bad graphic design
easy, like handing knives to babies.
Ppt makes it easy, too easy, to add visual fluff that gets in the
way of communicating.
More than a few fonts (one serif and one sans-serif, really) on a
page is too many. If one of the fonts is Comic Sans, one font is too
Bullet points make us stupid.
Really, really stupid.
They reduce all communication to a marketing presentation or
list of talking points. Even a sequential argument is not a list.
Powerpoint, excuse me, Microsoft Powerpoint [tm], is proprietary
and closed-source software with a proprietary document format that
keeps changing. You can get around this by using open-source software
like openoffice.org, which
has its own set of issues with klunkiness.
Have I mentioned that bullet points make you stupid?
I've committed all these crimes (except the Comic Sans one). So have
Edward Tufte wrote several
nice books about graphic design and information. One of his cardinal
rules is: Use less ink. Powerpoint and its cousins make it too easy
to break this rule. You can use Openoffice 'cause it's free, and
Keynote because Apple seems to set up better graphic design defaults
than MS (what a surprise), but you can still shoot yourself in the foot.
One of these days I may get some design examples to put up here.
In the meantime, here are some links:
Columbia Evidence: Tufte does a close-reading of the badness of a Ppt
slide that obscured the seriousness of tile damage to space shuttle
Columbia, contributing to its destruction. Ironically or tragically,
he did a similar analysis many years earlier of a badly presented
typewritten table that obscured information which suggested it was too
dangerous to launch space shuttle Challenger.
PowerPoint Remix by Aaron Swartz: Tufte's essay in the bullet-point
style of a PowerPoint presentation, a clever commentary, summary,
amplification and parody all at once.
"Absolute Powerpoint" by Ian Parker: "Before there were presentations,
there were conversations, which were a little like presentations
but used fewer bullet points, and no one had to dim the lights."
A 2001 New Yorker article
on the rise of the Empire of Powerpoint. Begins with a gruesome
anecdote about a consultant whose Ppt briefing to her daughters
on Family Togetherness reduces them to tears.
I'm no angel or Presentation Cop;
I've written crap, tossed-off, visually noisy Powerpoint (or
Openoffice) presentations too. Under time pressure and with a
limited amount of space to convey information, we all do. But
we can learn what not to do and try to avoid it. And we can
try to develop tools, or at least styles, that will encourage
good presentations rather than bad. Fight the Powerpoint.