Saturday, March 27, 2004

In Defense of PowerPoint

"Absolute PowerPoint: can a software package edit our thoughts?" by Ian Parker appeared in the May 28, 2001 issue of the New Yorker magazine. This essay was a strong critique of PowerPoint, Microsoft's presentation graphics program. (PowerPoint is commonly used by business, government and education as a visual aid in public speaking.)

I believe Ian Parker wrote a very good, insightful essay that is well worth reading. I also believe that he never lived in the business world BP -- Before PowerPoint. Business life AP -- After PowerPoint -- is a better world. This essay will tell you why.

When I started my career, PowerPoint did not exist (nor the web). Our challenge: persuade executives to purchase high priced capital equipment. We needed a presentation. Corporate marketing at our headquarters created presentations on 35mm slides that we placed in a carosel projector. In our field offices, we referred to these presentations as "the corporate story". The corporate story included a picture of the headquarters building, some graphs showing our financial performance and that sort of thing. These presentations were professionally done, but not terribly relevant to our customers. They wanted to know more about what our product could do for them. Plus, to see the slides, you had to turn out the lights, and there's nothing like darkness to make your audience sleepy.

These presentations were not exactly what we needed. As a result, most of my colleagues created their own presentations. They winged it. They "ad libbed". They spoke without preparation, thought, consciousness or concern for the listener. Many were in love with the sound of their own voice. Many in sales have the gift of gab without the gift of great public speaking skills.

Since I was new to all this, I would listen in the back of the room and take notes. Rarely was there a beginning, middle, and end to the presentation. Instead, I heard a stream of consciousness blathering passing itself off as a coherent speech. Sometimes the speaker went on for an hour. When it was over, I would try to figure out if there was one key point I could take away from the presentation. Usually I could not.

Over the last few years, the prevalence and dominance of PowerPoint has been highly criticized. The criticisms levelled at PowerPoint are many:

(1) PowerPoint constrains the imagination of the speaker.

(2) Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech would have suffered with PowerPoint.

(3) PowerPoint templates replace critical thinking by the speaker.

(4) PowerPoint reduces self-expression to "bullet points".

Let's examine these criticisms.

(1) PowerPoint constrains the imagination of the speaker.

Constraining the speaker's imagination is normally "a good thing"; unfortunately, very few people have any imagination. Often they mistake "imagination" for "unlimited time to pontificate about nothing." In the BP (Before PowerPoint) world, most speakers did not put any imagination into their presentations. Possibly because they did not have any or they were too lazy. At any rate, BP, presentations were not only unimaginative, they were also incoherent! Given the choice between listening to an unimaginative, incoherent presentation or an unimaginative, coherent presentation, most of us would choose something coherent.

(2) Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech would have suffered with PowerPoint.

Absolutely true. Dr. Martin Luther King painted an inspired picture of the kind of world we should all live in. He had a vision and he communicated it beautifully. Dr. King was a gifted and inspired public speaker--possibly the best speaker of his time. I think we would all agree that the ten people in the world who can create a speech like the "I Have a Dream" speech do not have to use PowerPoint, if they choose not to.

(3) PowerPoint templates replace critical thinking by the speaker.

Not true. Most speakers do not engage in critical thinking. They are either not capable, or they were never trained, or they just don't want to bother. In these cases the Powerpoint templates provide some structure and suggestions to help the speaker organize his thoughts.

(4) PowerPoint reduces self-expression to "bullet points".

PowerPoint supports "bullet point" communication, but it is not required. It is possible to use PowerPoint completely with pictures, drawings, art and no words and no bullet points. You can even add music and special effects. The default way to use PowerPoint is to create a presentation with mostly "bullets" and this may be the fairest criticism of PowerPoint. If there were a way to help the speaker prepare his presentation by thinking in pictures or diagrams instead of words, PowerPoint could be a much stronger product, and we would have even better speakers with better presentations. This point is very well made by Seth Godin in his ebook "Really Bad PowerPoint". Mr. Godin explains how, where, and why pictures are far superior to bullet points in public speaking.

In our new era of globalization, we find ourselves communicating with people who do not speak our native language very well. We have all experienced the presenter with a heavy accent or inability to articulate key words such that we cannot understand the communication. In this case, PowerPoint bullets have saved the day many times. Most speakers who must present in something other than their native language can read and write the second language better than speaking it. With bullets in the second language, we have a better chance of understanding the speaker.

The world AP (After PowerPoint) is a far superior world. The mere existence of PowerPoint means that most speakers are forced to prepare. There is social and cultural pressure to have your laptop ready to plug into the projection unit. Even if all that PowerPoint accomplished was forcing speaker preparation, we should salute it for that. But PowerPoint has done more than that -- most presentations have a beginning, middle, and end. They have a point. Some actually have a premise, an assertion, evidence, and logical conclusions. This is a tremendous accomplishment and a significant step forward in rhetoric and oratory.

1 comment:

DJosephDesign said...

Relating to your fourth point, you should see some of the presentations from Answers in Genesis. I'm their presentation designer, and I try to apply that same principle of pictures rather than bullets. And it works so incredibly well! People can so much better relate to a picture (be it photograph or line art illustration) than to a boring bullet point.

Good post.