Who will stick up for PowerPoint? It’s always been the subject of low-level

grumblings, and Lance Knobel points

out that the World Economic Forum, in Davos (usually), has long had a "deep-rooted

aversion" to allowing it into presentations. But ever since Edward Tufte

came out with his 24-page

jeremiad on the subject of slideware generally and PowerPoint specifically,

it’s got even worse press than usual.

The New York Times chimes

in today, with an article centered on Tufte’s criticism of the use of PowerPoint

within NASA. Tufte points to a PowerPoint presentation which was given to senior

managers while the Columbia was still orbiting, on the subject of whether or

not the famous piece of foam had caused serious damage.

Among other problems, Mr. Tufte said, a crucial piece of information —

that the chunk of foam was hundreds of times larger than anything that had

ever been tested — was relegated to the last point on the

slide, squeezed into insignificance on a frame that suggested damage to

the wing was minor.

The independent board that investigated the Columbia disaster devoted an entire

page of its final report last month to Mr. Tufte’s analysis. The board wrote

that "it is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint

slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation."

In fact, the board said: "During its investigation, the board was surprised

to receive similar presentation slides from NASA officials in place of technical

reports. The board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead

of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical

communication at NASA."

In a recent issue of Wired Magazine, Tufte recapitulated his message in a short

article, but the editors had a harder time finding anybody who would stand

up for the accursed software. They ended up alighting on David Byrne, who’s

been playing around with PowerPoint for a while now, and who has just released

a book and DVD called Envisioning

Emotional Epistemological Information. The title, of course, is direct nod

of the head to Tufte, whose second book is entitled simply Envisioning

Information. Byrne’s

Wired article is whimsical, showing a few slides from PowerPoint presentations

he’s put together, with sardonic commentary on each:

I began this project making fun of the iconography of PowerPoint, which wasn’t

hard to do, but soon realized that the pieces were taking on lives of their

own. This whirlwind of arrows, pointing everywhere and nowhere -each one color-coded

to represent God knows what aspects of growth, market share, or regional trends

-ends up capturing the excitement and pleasant confusion of the marketplace,

the everyday street, personal relationships, and the simultaneity of multitasking.

Does it really do all that? If you imagine you are inside there it does.

Wired magazine, which is now part of the Condé Nast empire, went crazy

over Byrne’s PowerPoint pieces. They put up huge flat-screen multimedia presentations

in the lobby of their magnificent office building in Times Square, and then

sponsored a talk between Byrne and Lawrence Weschler at the 92nd Street Y. (They

also had a dinner at Lever House and a big after-party in Byrne’s honour, but

I wasn’t invited to those.)

The effect of all this attention was to make Byrne’s work seem very important

– a groundbreaking new direction in visual art, perhaps, or maybe even

an effective counterpoint to Tufte’s grumblings. The headline on the article,

after all, is "Learning to Love PowerPoint".

But at the 92nd Street Y, it rapidly became apparent that Byrne basically agrees

wholeheartedly with everything Tufte is saying. He started off with a series

of PowerPoint slides designed expressly to make us laugh at the medium and its

limitations, and then went on to explain how it was those very limitations which

attracted him to PowerPoint as an artform.

At the unveiling of the pieces in the Condé Nast building, he said,

one of the building’s tech-support types went up to him and asked why he hadn’t

created his pieces in Flash rather than PowerPoint, since using Flash would

have been so much easier. The answer, Byrne said, was precisely that using PowerPoint

was hard and that the software was decidedly buggy: when you run a series of

slides together with music in a slideshow, as Byrne does, you can’t be entirely

sure how the slides are going to morph into each other, or exactly at what point

in the show the music is going to kick in. There’s an element of chance there:

the same presentation, run on a slightly different computer, can create a significantly

different result.

I can see the attraction of that kind of thing to an artist, and in fact the

best bits of Byrne’s slide presentations are precisely the bits where PowerPoint

proves buggiest: the jerky dissolves from one frame into another, say, or the

bizarre points at which the presentation freezes for no obvious reason. But

even Byrne admits that the whole thing is a bit of a con, really: the main reason

that some people find the presentations artistically interesting is that moving

images combined with music are nearly always compelling enough to hold attention.

That’s why music videos are so successful. We can’t watch one on mute for very

long, and much of the music might not be to our taste, but put the two together,

and we’ll happily watch.

Byrne once described his music as a way of forcing people to listen to his

lyrics, and in these works he’s doing much the same thing. He uses a Ligeti

piece, say, as a way of keeping attention while putting together an allusive

series of slides on the subject of phrenology.

In the real world, of course, almost no one uses music in their PowerPoint

presentations, and the only sound in the room is usually the presenter droning

on monotonously, laboriously reading out every last word on every last slide.

And as the NASA investigative board – as well as the journalists covering

the story – found out, a lot of the time PowerPoint presentations are

simply printed out or emailed in lieu of distributing a conventionally-written


Every few months I give out various awards in my guise as the Latin America

correspondent for Euromoney, and I get dozens of submissions from banks who

think they deserve a gong or two. If I didn’t put my foot down on a regular

basis, nearly all of these submissions would be in PowerPoint form: 3MB or 4MB

files which, if they don’t crash my computer completely, certainly slow it down

and make reading the submission a painfully laborious process.

Banks like sending PowerPoint submissions because they can insert all manner

of pretty corporate logos and country maps, but a lot of what they’re doing

is simply inertia: "submission" is more or less synonymous with "PowerPoint

presentation" these days.

Of course, there should be a world of difference: PowerPoint was never designed

to convey information on its own. The most interesting part of Byrne’s appearance

at the 92nd Street Y, for instance, was not his PowerPoint pieces, but rather

the presentation which he put together expressly for the talk. He had a series

of slides, some interesting, some funny, but he made sure that they complemented

what he was saying, rather than reflecting it. He understands that PowerPoint

is a tool which can be used as part of a presentation and that it is emphatically

not the same as the presentation itself. In fact, I would go as far as to say

that a good PowerPoint presentation (and such things do exist) should be pretty

much incomprehensible to anybody seeing only the slides and not listening to

what the presenter is saying. (Of course, there are always exceptions.)

The best example of a great PowerPoint presentation that I can find on the

web is this one by Lawrence

Lessig, which can also be reached from this

page if you’re having any difficulties with audio or video. But Lessig is

not the only high-profile master of the medium: Steve Jobs has long been legendary

for his Stevenotes, one of which is online here.

What Lessig and Jobs have in common is that they talk with conviction and enthusiasm

for their subject, and give carefully-written speeches which are more or less

free-standing. Have a look at Lessig’s lectures:

they read like speeches, and are clearly written in a very different manner

to his academic papers.

Those speeches are then enhanced with PowerPoint’s visuals, which can be used

to drive home a message even as Lessig himself is saying something a bit more


Unfortunately, the tens of millions of people with PowerPoint generally aren’t

good speechwriters, and invariably don’t have any speechwriters available to

construct their presentations for them. So they resort to PowerPoint’s helpful

content wizard. There’s a whole default presentation called "Communicating

Bad News", for instance, which includes slides like this.

Never mind the fact that the graphics are appalling, this kind of hand-holding

is almost guaranteed to end up producing presentations of astonishing superficiality,

with, as Tufte would put it, "a rate of information transfer asymptotically

approaching zero".

No content wizard is ever going to be able to make people sit down and work

out an interesting and compelling way of communicating information, and no gussied-up

graphics are going to turn a bad presentation into a good one. (That’s why Keynote,

Apple’s competition to PowerPoint, is not going to do much good for anyone.)

And yet PowerPoint can still, very occasionally, be a powerful tool for enhanced

communication. I’d just make a few (bullet) points, with a tip of the hat to


  • A series of slides will never turn a bad speech into a good one. So start

    with the speech, and then use the slides to illustrate it, rather than the

    other way around.

  • If you’re reading your slides, they have too much information on them.
  • Graphs and tables are perfect material for slides. Just remember what you

    learned in The Visual

    Display of Quantitative Information, and avoid Excel or PowerPoint defaults.

  • It is not necessary for every slide to be self-explanatory, but, on the

    other hand, you do not need to go out of your way to explain every slide.

    The slides and the speech are parallel and complementary information streams:

    use each to convey the information it’s best suited for.

Finally, and most importantly,

  • Write out your speech in advance, and think about how it

    will be received: place yourself in the position of a listener. Jokes are

    always good, and remember that now you have the extra option of throwing in

    visual jokes as well as verbal ones. Enjoy yourself, and the chances are that

    your audience will enjoy themselves too.

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5 Responses to PowerPoint

  1. Ned says:

    Surely writing out your speech in advance is the worst possible advice (except, like, bring your monkey with you)? I always find that, even when they aren’t reading directly, people who’ve worked out their phrasing beforehand always sound a lot more stilted than people who’ve just done an outline.

  2. Felix says:

    Ned has a good point. But in my defense, there’s a difference between writing your speech and reading your speech. Some people are good at reading things out loud; many people are bad at it, and rapidly fall into a sleep-inducing monotone. If you’re in the latter camp, don’t read your speech — but do still write it out in advance, because otherwise you’re going to end up taking your cues from your slides, rather than the other way around. I think the point I was trying to make is that PowerPoint presentations only really work when you’re not speaking to the slide.

  3. Abe says:

    If powerpoint is so bad, why is it so successful? Surely its not just because it allows pent up corporate workers a bit of a creative outlet in the cubicles? Tufte actually answers it, powerpoint is very effective at helping people organize and structure their talks/presentations. So perhaps the right approach it to write the speech using powerpoint and then throw away the slides?

    Btw I’ve seen Lessig talk using powerpoint. Its odd, but he’s a great speaker so he carries it. He does not control the slides, it runs like a movie, and he does his best to stay synced, strange experience, but it works most of the time. I doubt a less talented speaker could be anywhere near as effective though…

  4. geoff says:

    only bad craftsman blames his tools.

    if you recognize that you are not a craftsman, then let’s hope you have the sense to realize that you wouldn’t want to be trusting any standard issue microsoft product to be useful at communicating information.

    remember these are the people who brought you:

    “Error: Keyboard not found. Press F1 to continue.”

  5. DuN_D3vianT says:

    This article was hilarious! hahaha.

    Not only did it have some fairly informative bits, but it was the funniest thing I have read in a while! :-)

    Thanks for sharing.

    DuN D3vianT

Comments are closed.