The Perils of PowerPointlessness

By August 6, 2013 Featured, Uncategorized 5 Comments


Noted American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau was a real smart-ass. When he wisecracked that “men have become the tools of their tools,” he really had his Walden neighbors going. As farmers quizzically contemplated a future of being dominated by hoes, the incredibly prescient Thoreau must have secretly smirked. Because he wasn’t talking about his neighbors. He was envisioning the future—a future in which boardrooms, classrooms and war rooms would be at the complete mercy of a simple software program affectionately known as PowerPoint.

It started off as a decent enough idea. A tool to help any speaker organize and present their material. Much more efficient, less labor intensive and slicker than projected transparencies or 35mm slides. A miraculous innovation to put the sparkling magic of clip art, dissolves, reveals and other breathtaking design features at every presenter’s sweaty, trembling fingertips.

Then things got out of hand. PowerPoint is now a ubiquitous fixture in corporations, government bureaucracies, the military and education institutions. It’s no longer just a speaker’s tool—we convey all kinds of information with it, we use it to run meetings, we brief each other by reviewing presentations on screen even at our desks, and we post presentations as an information resource on our websites.

Edward R. Tufte’s superb monograph, “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint,” offered such compelling criticism of the tool that it was difficult to imagine any sane person ever using it again. Ten years later, however, PowerPoint continues to riddle the planet with bullets.


What’s wrong with that? Next slide please…


PowerPoint consistently fails the speakers who rely on it. It short-changes the content-creation process. What happens when someone learns they have to present or speak? Too often, the condemned springs into action by throwing together some slides from past presentations and from other people’s presentations, reshuffled and with a few new ones thrown in. Voila—a new presentation. Or the presenter sits in quiet solitude and starts building whatever comes to mind, kind of making things up on the fly. After all, it looks pretty polished on-screen with the help of those pizzazz-packed templates.

What’s missing? Oh, I don’t know, maybe those nagging fundamental questions about the subject, the audience and the objectives? Maybe that bothersome step of assembling resources, actually talking to experts (beyond just asking for their latest PPT deck) and gathering detailed foundational material? How about that part where you actually do some original thinking and create/choose ideas (instead of just slides), order the material logically (not just sequentially) and think about how to adapt it to the audience (and not just a PPT template)? Something’s missing alright. But it’s just easier to throw the slides together quickly on-screen—and besides, isn’t that what the audience expects anyway? Isn’t that how everyone approaches these assignments? Well, to quote another transcendentalist smart-ass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

PowerPoint also short-changes the speaker’s delivery. With the crutch of onscreen visual prompts, not many speakers bother with practicing the presentation much in advance. And during the presentation, many speakers spend most of their time looking at the screen and not at the audience. Such speakers also apparently assume the audience is illiterate. So they read each slide aloud. We may not connect with them very much, but we do get pretty familiar with one side of their head. And best of all, we learn to read.


So from a speaker standpoint, PowerPoint replaces thought, preparation and engaged delivery. Cool. Next slide please.


This doesn’t leave the audience in a very good position. Besides being subjected to a mediocre splatter of scattered thoughts, we’re invited to just follow along with the slides. Sort of like karaoke thinking—just read right along even though your brain doesn’t really know the tune.

What do you do when you’re in a room full of people, the title slide is onscreen, and the show begins? Settle in, prepare for the long haul, and wait for what the presenter has to say, right? Eyes gloss over, eyelids grow pleasantly heavy, mesmerized by bullets and taglines and charts and graphs and an endless succession of slides. You know what that’s called? It’s called disengaging. It’s hard to connect with the speaker and really sense an exchange of ideas when we’re all staring blankly at a screen together. It’s more like attending a bad movie with a bunch of strangers. You might as well go to a Cineplex expecting to have a deeply meaningful communication experience with one of the ushers.

PowerPoint butchers content, rigidly regimenting the allotment of ideas and extended arguments into bite-size, cookie-cut chunks. This means chronic over-simplification. Delving into any kind of detail becomes an exercise in intense squinting. Tufte offers a great dissection of PowerPoint’s weaknesses, and aptly summarizes them: “At a minimum, a presentation format should do no harm to content. Yet again and again we have seen that the PP cognitive style routinely disrupts, dominates and trivializes content. PP presentations too often resemble the school play: very loud, very slow, and very simple.”

The PowerPoint faithful will say I’m really only talking about people who abuse the tool and not the limitations of the tool itself. But it is the tool itself that is abusive, powerfully encouraging speakers and audiences to accept compromised communication marked by inferior content, ineffective speaking, audience inattention and a complete lack of meaningful connection between speaker and listener.

Speakers often insist that for certain topics, visuals are an absolute necessity. That’s occasionally true (although not as true as most of these speakers believe), but how often is PowerPoint limited to just “absolutely necessary” visuals? Typically, a visual seems to be “necessary” for everything the presenter wants to say. Anyone who has endured yet another “death by slides” presentation understands. Here’s a slide….here’s another slide. At some point the simple spoken word works better.

Still a die-hard PPT fan? So name the three best PowerPoint presentations you’ve ever seen. Or name the top three PowerPoint presentations of all time. But I bet you could name three top speeches, right? Or the three best speakers you’ve ever heard? Or here’s another question—when you attend a conference and review the program or hear about an upcoming lecture or tune into a speech, what attracts your interest? Is it the anticipation of a great slideshow?

No matter how dedicated you may be to slideshows, it’s hard to deny that the format is overused and out of control. What can be done about this? Help end the madness. Counsel a speaker to give up the slides for once and see how that changes and improves the communication dynamic. Run a meeting by talking to your colleagues instead of talking to the agenda onscreen—you may just end up with a conversation on your hands. And try building your own next presentation or speech from the ground up instead of just shuffling some slides together. Focus on genuinely connecting with your next audience without a PPT backdrop. But be prepared. A funny thing will happen.


It’s called communication.