Monday, May 9, 2005


I'm eight weeks into my ten week sabbatical (shriek!). In a little over a week I'll attend E3, after which I'll return to my ninety-thousand-person-strong employer and get the nose back to the grindstone.

At big companies, the grindstone is often fueled with PowerPoint slides. It's been a long time since I've read or authored any (with the exception of my talk at centennial a couple weeks ago). In the past, I've given a LOT of presentations. Internal-to-work, externally, to an individual, to a thousand people. Some have been pretty good, IMHO, others have been downright crappy.

Related to powerpoint (PPT for short) though, I finally got around to having a look at one of Edward Tufte's books, Visual Explanations, which is about how to present information in a way that leaps off the page. Tufte's also well known for his Cognitive Style of Powerpoint, a PPT-bashing rant that was reprinted in Wired (a.k.a Cosmo for Geeks), to much applause from the beard'n'sandal contingent.

Anyhoo. So I was flipping through Visual explanations and thinking about presentations and presentation style.

A couple days earlier, I was listening to MP3's of Richard Feynman's Lectures on Physics. While a good refresher on subject, it's also a great lesson on presentation. Feynman was a wonderful speaker (despite his accent :-). The wrap up of the 3rd lecture from volume 1 is MASTERFUL!

Anyhoo. So tonight I'm checking what's new in the blogosphere, and find out that Mark is also in a PPT quandry. And his thoughts triggered some from me, so, here they are.

What's the problem with powerpoint, and is it really a problem with powerpoint?

Despite Tufte's very aesthetically pleasing brochure/rant (brochurant? Quick - put me in the Wired jargon section!), I don't really have a problem with PowerPoint's constraining users to it's templates and formats. I can see how Tufte has a point, but I think the problems with common powerpoint usage are far more pervasive - to the point where the format/template issue is micenuts.

The problems, in my not so humble opinion, are as follows:

  • Thinking in Powerpoint: This one's easy - people have a problem to tackle, crack open powerpoint, and start going. But the don't know what they want to say. Figure it out first, THEN bust out the laptop. In otherwords, if you can't make the point verbally, you aren't going to make it with slides.
  • Powerpoint-as-substitute-for-strategy: Kind of the same as the above point, only taken to the next level. Given enough data, and enough pretty slides, one can weave a very elaborate, long-winded, dramatic story. No one may notice that the story has no end though, again, back to "if you can't just pitch it verbally".
  • Powerpoint-as-substitute-for-presentation skills: Slides won't support a crappy speaker that doesnt know that they are presenting and/or does so poorly.
  • Double-duty: In these days of email communication, PPT's are sometimes expected to stand-alone by themselves. However, this should look and feel VERY different than one that is being presented by a human, to one or more other humans. In a presentation, the presenter should lead you through the thought process - the story - and the slides should just have some supporting data, more maybe key points to reinforce the verbal. Not the whole thing. Problem though, is that sometimes you need the stand-alone, and people aren't willing to author two. Which brings me to my next point:
  • Laziness: Thinking of a point you want to make, and thinking of how to present it visually in a way that leaps off the page, is a LOT of work. I've spent hours working on a single illustration to make point. I've also found myself saying "this slide from this other presentation from this other guy KIND of says what I want to say, I'll just paste it in". Ah, but this is a slippery slope!

At this point, I suppose I should give a bunch of guidelines on what to do, but I guess I could just say: Don't make any of the mistakes in list of bullets above.
Whew! Rant over!


Mark said...

yes yes yes. Powerpoints for presentation and powerpoints for distribution/reading are two definitely different things. That's an insightful distinction to make for sure. :)

KimPallister said...

Takes discipline to author both though. If it's something really important, I actually try to write it out. Call it a whitepaper, manifesto, whatever. The point being that the detail is there.

Mark said...

I'm with ya; I always start out with pure text, stream of consciousness into Word. Then cull it down into something which gets the message across, then slowly convert it into Word's outline mode. Too bad you can't just import that into PPT!