In defense of PowerPoint

If you don't like the presentation, blame the user, not the software, readers say

Our story noting Pentagon leaders’ displeasure with PowerPoint presentations but questioning whether there was any escape from eye-glazing slideshows struck a nerve with many readers. And most of them came to PowerPoint’s defense, saying the fault for bad presentations lies not with the software program but with the presenter.

“Power Point or any other application/technology is nothing more than a tool to present data or information,” wrote Tim Putprush. “The briefer or, more properly, the communicator is responsible for delivering the data and information as well as encouraging the audience to think and develop an understanding from the presentation. … Presentation IS NOT understanding. … Understanding is an interactive process and requires the communicator and the audience to work together at communicating; isn't that what information technology is all about?”

“PowerPoint is a wonderful presentation tool, in the right hands,” another reader writes. “It is also very simple to use. Don't blame the medium for poor presentations. Garbage in, garbage out.”

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“I've seen thousands of PowerPoint presentations as an AV tech/graphic artist,” wrote Scott in Los Angeles. “This tool is highly misused and abused by presenters, secretaries and supposed PowerPoint ‘experts.’ When used properly it is a great communication tool! When used by a communications artist it is similar to video production in that it tells a story, holds the audience's attention, and provides support for the presenter’s message.”

Echoing that sentiment, reader DT pointed out that slideshows of any kind are a complementary tool for the discussion at hand: “PowerPoint is only used to present highly summarized and condensed information to give someone an initial exposure to the subject matter. Decisions should be made from follow-on detailed analysis reports. Anything less is inviting disaster.”

Several readers described complaints about PowerPoint as shooting the messenger, when the tool itself is innocent.

“PowerPoint in and of itself is not the real villain,” wrote one reader. “Okay, maybe it leads people astray, but a tool is only as good as the skill of the person using it. As long as you have briefers who insist on having every single point of their presentation on the screen you will have bad presentations.”

And, of course, there is the question of whether there are alternative tools for accompanying presentations.

“What is the real option to Power Point?” asked one reader. “Overhead projections were far more boring. No one can take a pure lecture format in presentations with the rare exception of a totally dynamic speaker. Does anyone have any suggestions to replace PowerPoint as our No. 1 presentation tool?”

“Great idea -- let's get rid of multipage presentations with builds and animations and return to Quad Sheets,” wrote Marc Bracken of the Battle Creek Federal Center. “Ever try to get an entire concept including timeline and budget onto one page? Agree, too many PowerPoint presentations are poor communicators, perhaps well structured templates in the individual disciplines would help.”

“Concur -- it's not the tool on the computer, it's the tool AT the computer,” summed up CJ. “And for what it's worth, it looks like the heinous slide precipitating all this was actually a graphic ripped from some other modeling software -- but the model was incomplete and/or badly done and presented to folks who wouldn't have understood the representation symbols anyway.”

Ah, the offending slide. The spur to this debate was a story in the New York Times, in which Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who heads U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, criticized PowerPoint presentations for creating “the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control. Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.” As evidence, he cited this slide, which “sums up” American military strategy if Afghanistan.

One writer measured the slide against proper practices. “Signs of a good presentation: (1) Does it tell a story? (2) Is it presented in digestible chunks of information? (3) Does the presenter know enough to speak to the topic without the slides? (4) Are the slides written at a topical level that is appropriate for the audience? The Afghan war slide in question fails on [questions] 1, 2, and 4 and I can only assume the presenter failed on 3. … So blame the software if you like ... but I find it odd to blame Ford if a driver decides to slam his car into a pole while texting.”

Marc Bracken in Battle Creek wrote again to add: “After careful review of the general's slide by our team, we totally concur with him that PowerPoint is the wrong tool for his referenced slide. That is an ontology, not a taxonomy. A 3-D ontology tool is needed that not only depicts the entities and relationships, but also how those relationships change with situational changes. The lines also should hold a wealth of information on policy, procedure and metadata required to connect the entities. Since this particular slide is a situational analysis, by nature, it is constantly evolving, thus a heuristic or self-learning, self-healing ontology is needed for accuracy over time. The foremost expert in that field works at DARPA, contact me for his info:”

“It seems to me that there are four kinds of PowerPoint slides: 1. Confused; 2. Good, but the subject is over my head; 3. Good, with good new information; 4. Good, but I've seen it all before. What Gen. McChrystal displayed was the first type. Type 3 is what we all want, but is rare. But if you are making a presentation, Power Point or otherwise, it is difficult for most of us to package a Type 3. I believe it is unfair to blame Power Point.”

Regardless of whether the fault is the user’s, some writers did agree that there are plenty of bad presentations made every day. One suggested a possible use for them: “I think a good strategy is to drop old PowerPoint slides from military briefings behind enemy lines. This should really confuse them enough to allow the launch of a major offensive, thus PowerPoint can be awarded a medal for assisting in the victory.”

And another concluded that, good or bad, slideshows will always be with us: “At the end of time, there will be few things left ... sharks, cockroaches, convenience stores, lawyers, and ... sadly ... PowerPoint!”


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Reader Comments

Fri, Sep 3, 2010

Anyone remember harvard Graphics? I inserted a slide into a 70(+) slide presentation detailing the man hours required to prepare the briefing. Luckily the general had a sense of humor. My boss went ballistic though.....

Thu, May 13, 2010

What I've noticed is that some presenters (like DAU) use Flash instead of PP--with equally bad results. The platform is irrelevent, it's the presentation that's screwed up. For example, I have litteraly had 'training' slides which said, "Intro, Body, Conclusion" and nothing else! Like that's useful. DAU's Flash training is exactly the same, except with annoying 'links' instead of useful information.

Mon, May 3, 2010

Perspectives from a former Disney Executive on his Lessons in Leadership blog. "Don't Let A Friend Use Powerpoint."

Fri, Apr 30, 2010 CeeGeeFair1 USA

Folks may recall - Edward Tufte (I am pretty sure) had written a WIRED article, a while back about "PowerPoint is Evil". Very clever, very cute examples of bad use; also I recall Mr. Tufte had written an article/blog going into more detail about Differences between Good and Dad (esp. misleading) PowerPoint visualization presentations with data/facts in them. (As I recall the Columbia Shuttle presentations were used to effect there). Very good stuff, from E. Tufte, and his Graphic Press site, I say (& no, I don't work for him).

Fri, Apr 30, 2010 M Reston

Deniece, you stole the words from my keyboard! I find that people from DoD don't know how to communicate because they can't stay out of the details and sum things up. It's a cultural disability, but it stays with them forever. Also, some staff activities are almost completely dedicated to creating Powerpoint presentations as output. This is a leadership failure. I knew an Air Force officer who spent 18 years of his career stateside creating Powerpoints. Yes, he gets the same retirement as the guys doing their fifth tour in SWA. Now that retired AF officer does the same thing as a contractor. It's a leadership problem.

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