Death By PowerPoint

This was originally published on a previous website in 2006

I was reminded of my dislike of standard PowerPoint presentations while reading a recent article published in the Wall Street Journal by Jared Sandberg. I have always wanted to participate in the question periods at the end of presentations by asking “How many of you actually could read what was on the screen and did you even bother?

Years ago when I was a teacher, PowerPoint was not an option. Not a single university professor would have dreamed of using it. The best teachers never even distributed course outlines. They actually expected us to take notes. Most of us did – albeit putting too much down in linear fashion rather than trying to distill the essence of what was said.

If you are speaking and your whole text is on the PowerPoint screen, your audience members may rightly assume that you think they are illiterate. The dual presentation has well earned the phrase, “Death By PowerPoint”. Jared Sandberg estimates there are 30 million such presentations a day.

At the beginning of an introduction to visual mapping and before I get to the maps themselves, I limit myself to the equivalent of one bullet point and make sure that there is also a graphic – and if it makes the point in a funny way, so much the better. The danger in teaching and learning is to assume that our essence is mind. We are also people with feelings and passions. Both have to be engaged before real learning takes place.

Edward Tufte, arguably one of the most important thinkers on visual presentation, is also against PowerPoint. He notes that the tendency to reduce everything to convenience trivializes the meaning. The speaker has lost content with the audience and is usually peering into the laptop instead of making eye contact with those who have come to hear and learn.

I have to admit that I have enjoyed making slides and transparencies in PowerPoint – always from a blank screen. But when I traveled to speak in South Africa I didn’t want to carry a computer so I simply used transparencies and a projector. The presentation were on the site of the International Hotel and Restaurant Association.. The first conference speaker’s computer failed in the middle of his opening PowerPoint presentation on the benefits of technology – not an ideal situation.

The best example of how not to use PowerPoint is this presentation of the Gettysburg Address. So if you use it, do so with great care. There are some healthier ways to use it – and to study – referred to in my ebook, See What You Think!