David Weinberger
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A lot to hate ...But PowerPoint brings order to unruly thoughts

28 May 2010

People hate all sorts of software because it’s hard to use, under-featured, or just plain irritating. But they hate PowerPoint for deeper reasons—for what it does to meetings, for what it does to social interaction, for what it does to how we think. Yet that blind fury can bring us to forget that PowerPoint took us a big step past where we were.

The question whether PowerPoint is a merge scourge or a harbinger of the Apocalypse arose again recently because of an article in The New York Times by Elisabeth Bumiller (April 26, 2010) about the Army’s newly kindled hatred of PowerPoint. Apparently Gen. Stanley McChrystal was shown a PowerPoint slide “that was meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy,” and replied, “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.” We are told that the “room erupted in laughter,” which I imagine is what usually happens when four-star generals make jokes.

Interconnections, or not?

The article uses that anecdote to open a wider front in the war on PowerPoint. The military is apparently fed up with the amount of time spent on generating graphs and other visual aids for slide shows. And, PowerPoint inculcates the illusion that all the world’s problems are “bullet-izable.” Bullet points, says Gen. James Mattis, don’t show the interconnections of “political, economic and ethnic forces.” Further, PowerPoint stifles discussion.

Wow, that’s a lot of anger. There’s so much anger that the complaints aren’t even consistent: The article opens with a criticism of a slide that was too complex and showed the interconnection of lots of different elements, but quickly moves to criticizing PowerPoint slides for not showing complexity and interconnections. PowerPoint stifles discussion, we’re told, although surely that’s the fault of the guy in the suit at the front of the room who refuses to take his hand off the clicker.

Synthesis is important too

So, let me say one positive thing about PowerPoint. In my limited experience, the introduction of PowerPoint (which depended upon the introduction of laptop projectors as standard gear for conference rooms) improved the logic of business presentations. Before PowerPoint, business managers would stand up in the front of the room and give rambling presentations that lacked coherence but demanded our attention. After PowerPoint, those presentations had more structure and more focus.

That’s because PowerPoint requires you to break your ideas down into a series of points, one after another. Each point gets a slide. And on each slide, points get bullets that explain them or support them. PowerPoint forced business presenters to become more analytic.

Now, there are problems with how PowerPoint expects us to think. Analysis into chunks is important, but so is synthesis. When you’ve broken your ideas down into a series of slides, one after another, it’s important to keep in mind what the overall context is; PowerPoint gives us no tools for that. It does nothing to connect the slides logically or thematically. Instead it gives us fancy transitions that, if they’re effective, make us say, “Oooh,” and forget the point the presenter was trying to make. Putting eye-candy between slides tells us nothing about the relationship between the slides, much less remind us where we are in the overall arc of the story or argument.

A measure of order

This is one of the ways that Keynote—Macintosh presentation software—is superior to PowerPoint. Keynote has a transition (“Magic Move”) that automatically moves and sizes elements seamlessly from one slide to another, so at least you can knit together two slides in a meaningful way. Aside from that, Keynote is as bad as PowerPoint at giving easy ways for presenters to show the overall arc.

Sure, there’s lots to hate about PowerPoint, some of which is genuinely a part of the product (such as the discreteness of the slides) and some of which is merely enabled by the product (such as decks with 100+ slides, each with 15 bullet points in colors that can’t be discerned against the background, and each read by a guy who thinks he’s clarifying important ideas). But we should also take a brief moment to remember that PowerPoint brought a measure of order and logic to our unruly thoughts.