Fight the Powerpoint

Powerpoint is the work of the devil.

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:

I've committed all these crimes (except the Comic Sans one). So have you.

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:

PowerPoint is Evil, a short article from Wired by Edward Tufte
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.
Ad for Tufte's essay, "The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint"
What if Abraham Lincoln had used Powerpoint to deliver the Gettysburg Address? Peter Norvig's horrifying and entertaining alternate version of history touches on some of Ppt's worst features and bad-style-enablers. Read the accompanying essay on its making as well.
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.
Every time you make a Powerpoint, Edward Tufte kills a kitten: Like all great graphics, this one is self-explanatory.

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.

Benjamin Weiner

bjw at