In defence of Powerpoint

Okay,
it's not going to win me any popularity points, but I thought I'd take
a look at the fairly standard Powerpoint bashing that takes place. This
article features John Sweller,
saying that Powerpoint is counter productive because, according to his
cognitive load theory, it is more difficult to process information that
is coming audibly and visually simultaneously. Garr Reynolds (via Downes) picks up on this, and makes the distinction between Powerpoint as method and as a tool, arguing:

"I am assuming that what Professor Sweller means is that the way
PowerPoint is used should be ditched, not the tool itself. Suggesting
we abandon PowerPoint because it's often (usually?) misused and abused
to produce awful presentation visuals is like saying we should dump the
idea of 24-hour cable news because so much of it is vacuous rubbish."

I
know it is common to complain of death by powerpoint, and I have sat
through enough dull, bullet-listed, tiny fonted, montonously delivered
presentations to make watching the entire DVD box set of Sex and the
City seem like an interesting alternative. But, I want to know what
these complaints are measuring against? Did I miss some public-speaking
Camelot, when every lecture was given with such insight, focus and wit
as to make it seem like an evening with Peter Ustinov? As I recall my
(pre-Powerpoint) university lectures they were largely dull, mostly
incoherent and almost deliberately lacking in humour.

The
complaints about Powerpoint often come from people who are good public
speakers. This is just not the case for most of us. Sure, we can make
improvements (I'll return to this), but in the same way many people are
not gifted comedians, or actors, most people are not talented orators.
I am to public speaking what George W Bush is to free form jazz – it's
just not my thing.

But, Powerpoint saves me here – by using
Powerpoint (and I'm using Powerpoint as a shorthand for all
presentation software, I accept that Keynote is a nicer tool), I can
structure, practice and improve my presentation skills. Yes, it's a
crutch, but if you need help walking, crutches are good. Powerpoint provides a framework for developing presentation skills.
Over the past couple of years I have abandoned bulleted lists, moved to
use of images with one message per slide and greater use of (YouTube)
videos. My presentations have improved (I think) as a result. I did
this by thinking through not only how I could give better presentations
in a general sense, but specifically, how I could improve my Powerpoint
slides.

In this sense, Powerpoint is a valuable tool. Like any
technology that democratises a skill, it means that most of what you
get is poor, but it also allows a mechanism to explore and develop.
After all, we don't complain that most of what gets written in blogs is
rubbish, we accept that is the price we pay for mass democratisation.
The difference with Powerpoint is that it is delivered to a captive
audience, they can't look elsewhere.

Okay, I've not convinced you to go easy on Powerpoint have I? Tomorrow: In defence of Clippy ๐Ÿ˜‰
Clippy

10 Comments

  1. You obviously touched a nerve with me, as the following ‘quick’ comment kept growing!
    I agree that Powerpoint is not specifically the problem. I was lucky enough to see Lawrence Lessig present a couple of years ago – and it was a revelation. I had never realised how hidebound I’d been in my use of Powerpoint until then.
    Now, we can’t all be Lawrence Lessig, but that experience inspired me to change my approach – and now I generally use full screen picture to essentially punctuate my talk, and emphasise aspects of what I’m saying. There are still issues. I’m not sure my slides really add a huge amount – although I occasionally manage to choose images that stick in the mind and therefore act as a reminder of my point. Also, for those looking at my powerpoint slides they are essentially completely meaningless without commentary. This is a deliberate move on my part, and I’ve started to put more in the speakers notes to compensate. However, I note more and more presentations on ‘slideshare’ work standalone as well as when presented, and wonder if this is a better approach (I think this is harder work probably!)
    But my real problem is that I don’t think Powerpoint or Keynote actually help me very much in creating ‘good’ presentations. They seem very much structured around putting text on slides, with some facility for illustration.
    I want to create slides that are full of great illustrations, figures, pictures, diagrams. Where are the tools that help me – the ‘drawing toolbar’? Don’t make me laugh ๐Ÿ™‚
    Perhaps part of the problem is I just don’t have the skill set – I’m not skilled with Photoshop, Flash, etc. But I think some of the tools could be integrated into Powerpoint and similar packages – and probably be made easy enough to use that I could exploit them.
    Some examples of tools that I’d love to see in Powerpoint (and please point me at stuff if it exists):
    Ability to animate a ‘flyover’ of an image, zooming in on different bits in order, advancing on click
    ‘Tweening’ tool (where one image morphs into another)
    Decent diagramming tool
    Integration with Flickr/Youtube/you name it (n.b. just about to install Slideshare ribbon in Powerpoint which looks interesting)
    Sure that there are loads more…

  2. Great piece, Martin.
    Powerpoint is a very powerful tool – it can be a bit of a dog to use sometimes – but it is nonetheless a powerful tool that is, unfortunately, used appallingly by most presenters.
    The comment above from Owen and Damyanti is a perfect illustration of the problem – a lack of skills in those wanting to take Powerpoint beyond the interminable lists of bullet points and the size 14 text (so that you can fit more on the screen).
    Anyone who wants to use Powerpoint “…to create slides that are full of great illustrations, figures, pictures, diagrams…” (to quote from their comment) can do so, but you have to be willing to extend your skill set, and your tool set, beyond Powerpoint itself. When I have Powerpoint open to build a presentation (or, preferably, Keynote, but it doesn’t really matter which at the end of the day), I usually also have a number of other applications open: Photoshop, Illustrator, the Web (e.g. Google, YouTube, Flickr (for creative commons pics), and many other sites), iPhoto, and sometimes Garageband and/or Quicktime.
    When I see a bad presentation, I always blame the presenter, and never the application being used, whatever it might be..

  3. I think there is a design flaw inherent in PowerPoint. If I could have more speaker prompts on my screen I’d often be confident enough to be a lot more Lessig-like on the audience screen.

  4. Martin I couldn’t agree with you more. PP is a tool that has the capability of providing the user with a raft of largely unused features. These are often overlooked in favour of the old reliable dot point.
    Probably the single biggest influence in my understanding of the capabilities of PP is Tom Kuhlman from Articulate and the Rapid E-learning Blog http://www.articulate.com/rapid-elearning his tips and tricks for getting the most out of PP have helped to improve my products no end.

  5. @Owen and Damyanti (was it a joint comment?) – I agree the focus in PP is on text, so it has bad affordances for presentations in a way.
    @John – yes, it should be seen as part of a collection. What I see PP as being good at is creating a draft presentation, or presentation structure. I start with bullet lists and then carefully remove them. The problem is many people don’t get beyond the draft stage.
    @Alan – great presentation, laughed my butt off at the life in bullet points. And to my shame I hadn’t seen the Randy Pausch lecture, thanks for that, it is funny, intelligent and genuinely moving. A couple of points:
    1) I’ve seen a few people complain that no-one looks at the notes on Slideshare – my response is create a slidecast, that way people have the audio and visuals.
    2) It is true one can become overly reliant on a crutch. The point about using PP as a drafting tool above can be seen as a means of moving away from this. In the end you can abandon PP altogether and your presentation can be demos, Flickr slideshow, Camtasia movie, whatever. But if you’re not a presentation whizz, then PP does actually provide a useful scaffolding tool – as long as you do move beyond the bullet list.
    3) I know you were kinda being cheesy but do every presentation as if it’s your last doesn’t really hold in everyday life because a) sometimes you have to do presentations at short notice and b) the subject matter isn’t what you’d always choose for your last presentation eg ‘New organisational structures’

  6. @AJ Cann You can set up PowerPoint to use multiple displays – ie. speakers notes on screen, slides on the projector.
    More broadly, I slideware like PowerPoint is often misused as a planning tool, which means you end up with speakers notes on the slide. I find if I do my planning away from PowerPoint, thinking in images and concepts, then I end up with a much better slidedecks like the ones described in this post.

  7. I think the best example of power-using PowerPoint was Diana Oblinger at an OU conference a year or so ago. A real tour de force where the slideshow ran in the background as a counterpoint to her verbal presentation.
    If we could borrow your crutch and beat a few of the bad practitioners might that improve everyone else? ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. I’m like you in wishing that speakers would use more creativity with powerpoint. One thing I’ve done is to have samples from my data voiced, and only put a key sentence on the screen, so neither I nor the listeners have to read screenfuls of text; they can focus on the key sentence while listening to the words. I’ve had good feedback on that. Also, I made an animated poster using a powerpoint presentation (well, it was about how people relate online) that viewers really liked.

  9. A good defence of PowerPoint is realistic. Presentation software offers us all the opportunities we need to engage with our audiences visually – using images as visual metaphors. Most presenters could go a lot further with their use of PowerPoint – enhancing and boosting their presentations in the process.
    Peter

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