In Defense of PowerPoint

Every few months there’s another article on the evils of PowerPoint, but it’s a poor craftsman that blames their tools. If you can’t think of a decent sentence to write, would you blame your pen? If you seem to habitually crash cars, would you blame the shape of the steering wheel? Regardless of how good or bad your pens and cars are, the burden of writing and driving is placed squarely between your ears. Speaking is no different. What kind of person insists on claiming otherwise?

Presentation tools are a distraction from the real issue: fools get lost with great tools all the time. PowerPoint is fine for what it does, which is put images on a screen. It’s better than the slide and overhead projectors it was designed to replace. But that’s just the point: slides are rarely the hard part of communicating anything. Slides are props. They support the ideas and points the speaker is making. For thousands of years great leaders and orators did their thing without a single slide. If the speaker is an idiot, or renders themselves virtually idiotic by their own hubris, forgetting why the audience is there, or gets distracted by animations and fonts, the fault is theirs, regardless of the tool. I prefer Keynote, but most criticisms of Powerpoint apply to it as well. All speakers have the option of speaking without any slides. which is how its been done for most of human history.

In every organization that’s ridiculed for “PowerPoint stupidity” (Such as the U.S. government in this NYT article), I blame the leaders of the culture, not the tool. In these articles there is rarely any evidence the use of Keynote, Prezi, or any other presentation tool in the same culture wouldn’t result in the same intellectual misery. In fact it doesn’t even appear the image so ridiculed by the NYTimes was made in PowerPoint. It was likely made in Illustrator or some other graphic design tool. If your boss demands you have 100 slides, with 50 arrows, and 30 different fonts, the problem is not the software.

The better question is: Why do some cultures reward poor communication skills? Why do they confuse charts, spreadsheets and animations with clear thinking? (perhaps its a data death spiral). Environments like these ruin the power of any tool, and eventually any mind. Any leader who confuses volume with clarity, and density with wisdom, has set up the entire organization to fail, independent of what tools they do or do not use. And when a culture is in trouble, look to the leaders as the leader’s behavior defines the culture.

The next time you find yourself victimized by a bad presentation, don’t just blame the presenter or their software. Instead blame whoever is in charge. Ask the following:

  • Who invited this speaker and chose to give them the floor?
  • Does the majority of the audience find the speaker effective?
  • If not, what is the leader doing to improve this?
  • What communication example did the leader set? Is this speaker simply emulating him/her?
  • What constructively critical feedback will the leader give the speaker so the speaker is better next time?

Blaming tools can be a copout for people who should be held responsible, from conference organizers, to department heads, to the speaker themselves.  Event organizers often do nothing to train, coach or reward good speakers they invite. Same for bosses and their staff. The feedback loops are broken and poor communication skills are, by default, reinforced. Training people to use PowerPoint isn’t speaker training, just as teaching someone how to use a hammer isn’t architecture.

Edward Tufte is fond of criticizing PowerPoint (See PowerPoint is evil, Wired). And I agree with his critique, but not his target. If you see him present his famous workshop, he shows images on a big screen behind him. He seems proud not to be using a tool as crude as PowerPoint, but the functional distinction is trivial. Regardless of how, he shows images on a big projection screen. While he is wise in not centering his lectures on his slides (often turning the screen behind him to black) he could very well use PowerPoint to do all these things and no one would know the difference.  The key distinction is not the tools, but his choices as a speaker for how he uses the tools. Hit B any time in PowerPoint, and you get a black screen.

Word Processors, email programs, and now blogging software have all been criticized for lowering various bars of quality and distorting people’s focus away from good thinking. But this is what popular tools tend to do and always will do. When you democratize a kind of power, you enable people to use that power in new ways. This enables the creation of great, as well as awful, things, as people without training or discipline now have  great power without earning it. With fresh blood innovations can be made, but also trash.

In the end, most “X is evil” type rants contain a logical fallacy, which is this: you can do stupid things with any tool. Most tools are indifferent. A chainsaw works just as well on your foot as on a log. The more powerful the tool, the larger the problem or solution you can create.

As someone who understands design, I recognize ways to make PowerPoint better. A good chainsaw could have a foot proximity detector, and try to minimize the odds you’ll do stupid things. And in turn, PowerPoint should help you think about what you want to say before you make any slides at all. But thinking takes time, and in many cultures thinking is made to seem like a waste of time.  Since all slide tools inherently worship slides, and all tool lovers inherently worship the tools, many people tend to jump in to making slides well before they know what they want to say. Apple’s Keynote will never tell you when you’d be better off using fewer slides, or demand you practice your talk, two things most experts agree are big and easy wins for better presentations. But both require acts of thoughtful patience, something no tool yet designed can grant us.

As a final example, Carolyn wrote about why lazy professors who abuse PowerPoint suck. And I agree, but I think the professors carry the balance of the burden. A lazy professor would be nearly as lazy with other tools. Years ago, in the age before computers in the classroom, I had courses where professors copied their own crusty, aging notes onto huge chalkboards for an hour, so I could copy the same fucking notes down in my own book. This was complete mass-scale idiocy masquerading as learning. Did anyone say chalk-boards were evil? slide-transparencies were evil? The reuse of lecture notes? Do we really expect a piece of software to redefine human nature? The professor gets paid a salary to be accountable for how they use whatever tools they choose. And same for any speaker.

In summary, of course there are ways to make PowerPoint better, but that’s not the real problem to solve.

When someone finds a gun that fires anti-lazy/anti-stupidity rays at people in power, I’ll be the first to buy. But until then, lets for once put some blame on the users of tools, not just their creators. When you step up to the microphone, you are responsible for everything you present. If you put up a slide and stand in front of it, it is your show: you have no one to blame but yourself. If you are a leader, part of what you are responsible for, like it or not, is how well the people who work for you communicate with each other. If you don’t like what you see, do something about it.

Also see: Why I hate Prezi

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