Maybe Powerpoint isn't so bad (created 2009-01-06)

This page is moving to a new website.

I have been harshly critical of PowerPoint in the past (though I did post a rejoinder from one of the readers of my old website). Most of my criticisms were inspired by Edward Tufte, who wrote an article for Wired magazine (Powerpoint is evil) and a short monograph (The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint).

In preparing a newsletter article about Edward Tufte and his new book, Beautiful Evidence, I came across some reviewers who take Dr. Tufte to task for his harsh criticisms of Powerpoint.

Don Norman argues that the tendency for Powerpoint to oversimplify is a good thing. Listeners at a talk can be overwhelmed with rich, data dense graphics.

This is one of the points Tufte has continually failed to grasp, not only in his diatribe against PowerPoint, but in almost all of his publications and talks. Tufte is a statistician and I suspect that for him, nothing could be more delightful than a graph or chart which can capture the interest for hours, where each new perusal yields even more information. I agree that this is a marvelous outcome, but primarily for readers, for people sitting in comfortable chairs, with good light and perhaps a writing pad. For people with a lot of time to spend, to think, to ponder. This is not what happens within a talk. Present a rich and complex slide and the viewer is lost. By the time they have figured out the slide, the speaker is off on some other topic.

David Farkas believes that Edward Tufte and other Powerpoint critics are too harsh. He does acknowledge the tendency of Powerpoint to create problems, but adds that a thoughtful author can overcome the problems.

There have been extreme claims that PowerPoint both �edits� the thoughts of the presenter and makes presentations boring. Although such claims require considerable qualification, presenters do face potentially harmful mediation effects as they design their decks. Among these mediating effects are the following: content cutting�eliminating informative text and graphical content planned for a slide in order to fit the available space; overflow distortion�the violation of the deck�s logical hierarchy that can occur when deck authors let text flow from one slide to another; and slide-title flattening�the masking of hierarchical distinctions in the titles of slides. Fortunately, these potentially harmful mediation effects can be successfully managed by savvy deck authors.

I think it is worth noting these comments, though I still find myself closer to the thoughts of Dr. Tufte on this issue. In my opinion, Powerpoint is a box full of blink tags. It is possible to create a good Powerpoint presentation, but such an effort requires resisting all of the gadgets and gizmos that Powerpoint dangles in front of you.