I’ve often thought that the people who criticise Powerpoint haven’t realised that you don’t have to use bulleted points and preset designs. Of course, if you do, Edward Tufte’s probably right: it’s boring and the overuse of templates indeed may “usually weaken verbal and spatial reasoning”. But you can ignore the templates, as David Byrne shows with some of his freeform Powerpoint slides in Wired.

4 thoughts on “powerpoint

  1. Jamie

    I detest PowerPoint but I sometimes use it for reasons of expidiency.

    I was complaining about it only yesterday. I’ve only used a couple of versions and I don’t have much experience with it, but it seems to me as though M$ bought someone else’s product, slapped an alternative interface on it and then did away with almost all of the original interface.

    It seems that someone at M$ heard that direct manipulation interfaces are often a good idea and decided to use them for PowerPoint (and some parts of other Office software) but they had no idea what they were doing — there is almost no way to know what your options are or, if you do know, it is almost impossible to indicate it to the program.

  2. miligo

    I’ve found myself wondering what it is exactly that makes Powerpoint evil. Certainly it is dangerous: a graphic communications tool in the hands of people poorly trained in graphical communication is a bad thing. As Tufte points out, hierarchical outlines can be used to lend a spurious authority to banal or misleading statements and imply non-existent chains of inference and conclusion. But this, I think, is not enough to make Powerpoint truly evil. For a long time I wondered what I was missing, until I came across this:

    Leverage your existing presentations so you donít have to start from scratch. You can import just about any file type into Keynote – including PowerPoint, PDF and AppleWorks presentations – and then enhance with themes. You can paste data from Excel documents into your Keynote charts and tables. Keynote lets you export presentations to PowerPoint, QuickTime or PDF.

    At http://www.apple.com/keynote/ … and I realised that Chomsky had answered the question over a generation ago.

    PPT, surely, has as its antecedents the blackboard, the flip chart and the ohp. Even used amateurishly, all of these media are effectively deployed in communication. Thinking back to my schooldays, I was always worried about teachers who flourished OHPs rather than wrote on the board, for some obscure reason, but they never struck the terror into me that a session of PPTs can. Why is this? And why did ohps make me more nervous than blackboards?

    In the 1970s Chomsky noted that television was destroying political discourse. He realised that, in fact, discourse was stopping, as television demanded immediacy, and is not well suited to the delivery of lectures, encouraging a style of discourse now known as the “soundbite”. At first, “soundbites” were the distillation of more complex arguments – and this was the point of Chomsky’s objection: that complex political debate was being “dumbed down” into a soundbite for television’s consumption.

    This was the effect of television itself–as McLuhan spotted, the medium is the message–but the political classes soon got with the medium and rather than “dumb down” the argument to get to the soundbite, dropped the argument entirely to produce just the soundbite. By the 1980s, politics had become merely soundbite packaging: Consider, since when did “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” actually substitute for a policy on criminal justice?

    Although politics has always been about sloganeering–wrapping a complex idea into a memorable phrase like “votes for women”, “peace in our time”, “liberty, equality, fraternity”–there used to be complex political ideas behind the slogans. Nowadays, political parties don’t have policies as such, they instead craft soundbites to appeal to target swing voter groups. The party that does this best gets elected.

    There are no longer any big ideas in politics not because all the big idea battles have been won, but because there are not anymore big ideas at all – and Powerpoint has helped this happen to the presentation of complex information.

    In the past, the notes on the blackboard represented a summation. The teacher wasn’t writing all there was to know on the subject – that existed in books, papers, pictures, documents, films, and other archives. The teacher merely presented a synthetic overview of the corpus relevant to the lesson at hand.

    The teacher was able to do this (if they were a good teacher) because they had some mastery of that corpus. The notes on the board were ephemeral, epiphenomena of the narrative the teacher’s master caused him/her to weave around the source material. On reflection, this is why I got nervous about OHPs.

    OHPs were more difficult to produce, and were produced in advance of the lesson. The teacher became preoccupied with the presentation of the OHPs, making sure they were laid out clearly and legible from the back of the class, as they would be unable to effect significant changes on the fly. They would have to prejudge very accurately the length of their talk, and the level of engagement of their audience. They would, in short, have come to see the production of the OHPs as the end in itself, rather than the summative mastery of the subject matter.

    PPTs, too, has become an end in itself. PPTs don’t summarise more complex corpora, they are the sole embodiment of a piece of thinking, information or ideas. The are lavishly prepared: my anecdotal impression is that for every hour a Powerpoint is worked on, 40 minutes are on looknfeel, and 20 minutes are on content.

    As more and more visual tools are loaded into presentation software, as with Keynote, more and more time is spent on the looknfeel. This is what makes Powerpoint evil: it is the primary medium for the expression of ideas in business, and, increasingly, education.

    PPT is no longer an ephemeral medium, but a medium of record – so what we record is executive summaries and bullet-points. Not only are complex ideas no longer explored –if they won’t fit on a slide, there’s no place for them–but people are becoming increasingly ignorant of complex ideas: All thought has become slogans.

    Is there hope? Very little, I fear. But I say this – delete your Powerpoint slides after presenting them. Promise yourself that you will always treat them as ephemeral, that your primary sources will be elsewhere, in greater depth, and with more detail, and you may yet be saved.

  3. Jill

    Wow, that’s a well-though-out comment. Thank you!

    I agree with you that using Powerpoint as you describe it is not good. I like your points about the soundbites, and about the notion that the OHP or the Powerpoint IS the knowledge, and all of the knowledge – this makes me think of the way some studnet groups demand handouts from each lecture, there’s such a notion of learning as the simple transmission of pre-packaged knowledge from teacher to students in that demand. As I’m understanding you, that’s part of the problem with much use of Powerpoint?

    But it doesn’t need to be that way. Look at how Mark Bernstein or Stuart Moulthrop use powerpoints, for instance – Stuart’s DAC 01 keynote, for instance, or Mark’s talk from Hypertext 01. Mark and Stuart haven’t used Powerpoints, actually, but Flash and Quicktime and such, but they’re slides designed to be displayed on a screen while the presenter talks. They’re emotive, use bold images, animations and single words or phrases, and work with their creators’ oral presentations (if you’re there to hear them) to make you want to read the full research paper being presented. Obviously a lot of work has been put into these presentations, but it’s obvious there’s a lot of work on content before the presentation’s even started.

    Just because the standard way of using Powerpoint’s not good doesn’t mean that projected computer-designed slides are always evil.

    I’ve stopped making slides myself, mostly. I used them as crutches when I started doing public talks, putting a lot of effort in them and I think they worked pretty well. Now I prefer scribbling on the board, using quickly made transparencies (usually done right before or during class) or talking from a blog post with lots of links in it. I would love to make presentations as beautiful as Mark and Stuart do – honestly, if you ever have the chance to see either of them present anything, go, because it’s brilliant. Looking at the slides on the web without the performance does not do the trick.

  4. weezBlog

    Powerpoint warp dimensional generator
    I’m teaching two classes thiw quarter – it makes a tremendous difference. So I’m reworking presentations for my classes. Both that I’ve taught before. A note at Jill’s brought me to David Byrne’s Powerpoint. This ain’t your daddy’s powerpoint. So…

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