Learning to Love PowerPoint
August 20, 2003 9:43 AM   Subscribe

Learning to Love PowerPoint Wired and the New York Times feature David Byrne's DVD/book Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information, which contains art he created with PowerPoint. The title's a reference to Edward Tufte, who has his own opinion of PowerPoint (which was remixed by Aaron Swartz).
posted by kirkaracha (44 comments total)
*heheh* As someone who has grown to loathe PP having spent waaay too much time trying to:
a) explain to marketing gimps that you can't just 'send it to the printer' and then use the result as your primary pitch document for a major account,
b) extract pictures from PP for use in magazines (!) &
c) turn chronically awful PP conference presentations into something useable for a CD-ROM [the guy who cuts the grass at your local EnormoDome does PP. O. Mi. God.]

...I can appreciate a different approach..!
posted by i_cola at 10:07 AM on August 20, 2003

Blaming PowerPoint for lousy presentations is like blaming Word for lousy literature, or Excel for a lousy bottom line. The program isn't the problem - it is possible to produce a quality presentation using PP. It's a tool, and it needs a skilled hand to produce something worthwhile. Nice to see Byrne recognize that, and use it according to his unique style.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 10:08 AM on August 20, 2003

I know why I should hate Powerpoint, but sometimes it is just sooo easy. I got paid a good sum to turn some sociology courses into powerpoint for a professor (who was still using chalkboard and overheads but has no idea how to work a computer except for email and word)

One course he teaches is "Political Economy," and I found that each class had a unique mood to it. Plus what better way to get University students engaged than showing Video clips? Yeah, Powerpoint is limiting, but it is so easy to use that it can be really good (with some imagination).

Good post!
posted by Quartermass at 10:10 AM on August 20, 2003

I hate Power Point with the white hot intensity of a thousand suns. I have a 63 page document sitting here right now...written, entirely, in Power Point. Because it's "easier to cut and paste pictures than in Word".

*cry of anguish*
posted by JoanArkham at 10:23 AM on August 20, 2003

I have to agree with GhostintheMachine: PowerPoint gets a bad rap not because it's a lousy program but because it's used in such poor ways.

PP gives users the ability to present information cleanly and clearly, but if they're not good communicators to begin with the presentations they create will not meet the potential of the product. It's not like presentations created with Keynote are going to be any better -- it's all on the user side.

There's a dirth of educational materials aimed at improving clarity of PP presentations. I think if Tufte were to spend some time with PP and develop a book outlining (heh) better ways to use the program, corporate communicators would snap it up.
posted by me3dia at 10:23 AM on August 20, 2003

I actually taught myself PowerPoint by making a sort of art project with it years ago. Basically, I made a PowerPoint "music video" to a 20-minute song by Jane Siberry. I could sit at my desk, aim the remote at the stereo to start the song, then click the mouse to start the show. The lyrics were timed to appear as they were sung, with various pictures and stuff for effects. It was nifty - but when I upgraded to a faster computer the timings I'd set no longer worked so it all fell apart.

One of these days I should try it again, with an MP3 so it's all linked together. (Although doing it in Flash would probably work better.)
posted by dnash at 10:26 AM on August 20, 2003

Hypercard reinvented for the thousandth time.
posted by HTuttle at 10:42 AM on August 20, 2003

It's a tool, and it needs a skilled hand to produce something worthwhile.

Damn right. Unfortunately the whole marketing spin for PP & other Office progs is based on how easy it is to get going and how anyone can be zipping out wunnerful stuff in next to no time. Without RTFM. And for some reason, people getting paid good money are getting away with it.

Anyone tried Keynote ;-)
posted by i_cola at 10:42 AM on August 20, 2003

No discussion of Powerpoint could be complete without a link to Abraham Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation.
posted by CrunchyFrog at 10:43 AM on August 20, 2003

We did a presentation using a "jeopardy" style of interaction, and used powerpoint to jump between the topic board, point value, correct response, and back, and it worked great. Very non-linear, but powerpoint worked like a champ.

However, few other presentations I've seen that use powerpoint break away from the linear, 5 bullets per slide (and occasional bonus picture) format.

It's not the tool, it's how it's used.
posted by jazon at 10:49 AM on August 20, 2003


  • Everything reduced to bullets
  • Bullets appear meaningful
  • Meaningless out of context
  • Cryptic
  • Thinking of bullets becomes subs. for thinking of argument
  • Everyone starts talking in bullets
  • Can nap in dark during presentations

posted by carter at 10:49 AM on August 20, 2003

The program isn't the problem -it is possible to produce a quality presentation using PP.

True. However, PowerPoint makes it very easy to make very bad presentations. It seems people just can't restrain themselves from using every silly transition/sound effect/animation on their presentation.
posted by gyc at 10:52 AM on August 20, 2003

Ok, ok. Maybe it's possible to have a Power Point presentation that doesn't suck. But I'm sick of seeing it used as a word processor/graphics editor (in a professional workplace sense, not in the "look at the neat thing I did" sense). Just because I can make soup in the coffee maker doesn't mean it's a good idea.
posted by JoanArkham at 10:57 AM on August 20, 2003

But I'm sick of seeing it used as a word processor/graphics editor

Absolutely. It's like when people here at my job type address lists in Word and then come to me asking how to turn them into form letters or address labels. "First, you re-type them into an Access database or an Excel spreadsheet like you should have done in the first place..."
posted by dnash at 11:01 AM on August 20, 2003

OFF TOPIC: Is it me, or is Wired getting "good" again? I swear I've read at least a half dozen interesting things from them as of late, which is far more than I found in there over the past year. Perhaps the CondeNast stranglehold has been loosened? Or are we just living in interesting times, again?
posted by shoepal at 11:04 AM on August 20, 2003

Click to add title
posted by putzface_dickman at 11:09 AM on August 20, 2003

Superbad the html precursor to Byrne's E.E.E.I.
posted by putzface_dickman at 11:17 AM on August 20, 2003

I have to deal with a lot of stuff at work, but generally anything communicated by Powerpoint can be filed into the "vapid and vacuous" category. That's certainly true of more PPTs, proportional to the number of such documents received, than for any other file type.
posted by clevershark at 11:29 AM on August 20, 2003


Im with you. WIRED has deffinately been on the ball lately. I have actually started to buy the magazine (~gasp~) again, something I hadn't done in a good two years.
posted by Quartermass at 11:41 AM on August 20, 2003

"First, you re-type them into an Access database or an Excel spreadsheet like you should have done in the first place..."

Or you, I dunno, maybe just copy and paste them over...
posted by kindall at 11:48 AM on August 20, 2003

Or you, I dunno, maybe just copy and paste them over...

Yeah, but they wanted to mail merge, which would do all of that in one nice step if the addresses were in any sort of tabluar format to begin with.
posted by dnash at 11:56 AM on August 20, 2003

Love the Stalin poster. I may have to quit making fun of Edward "If only the shuttle designers had listened to me!!!" Tufte.
posted by gimonca at 11:57 AM on August 20, 2003

From the NYT link above : Nancy Halpern, a PowerPoint specialist. That really is a 'click to add title' job....
posted by punilux at 11:59 AM on August 20, 2003

Wired has ended the embargo on their own own Tufte article.
posted by putzface_dickman at 12:07 PM on August 20, 2003

I've been meaning to make some stickers that say "powerpoint is a disease"...

I'm sure that there are some instances where a well put-together powerpoint presentation is great, but it's powerpoint's "bullet-reductionism" attitude especially in educational settings that worries me.

Somehow copying down the Professor's bulleted powerpoint presentation doesn't seem to have the same educational value as synthesizing the lecture for yourself... But I suppose that could just be a learning preference of mine.

At any rate, powerpoint's pervasiveness seems to be on the rise...
posted by lpqboy at 12:23 PM on August 20, 2003

Off-topic drift: As a longtime Wired writer, I have to say from the inside that Conde Nast has never exercized a "stranglehold" on Wired. Believe me, we were expecting otherwise, but it never happened. Conde Nast has pretty much allowed us to go our own way, for better and worse, and kept Wired afloat through a difficult time. As far as us being on the ball again, well, I definitely think that's true design-wise -- Wired looked really shitty a couple of years ago, in my humble opinion, but we have a new design chief who has really cleaned up, revivified, and unified the magazine's design sense again. But were we so off the ball content-wise? I dunno.

If you haven't been buying Wired for the last couple of years, you missed Po Bronson's kick-ass story about faith-healing, Ben Mezrich's great tale of MIT geeks hacking Vegas (soon to be a movie, I hear), Kevin Kelly's psychedelic musings musing on the universe as a computer, and my own story on the rise of autism in Silicon Valley, which was basically ripped off -- sorry, uhm, advanced! -- six months later as a cover story in Time magazine.

So, while I think Wired is indeed getting better, it bums me out when people tell me they stopped reading it and then marvel over some watered-down version of a Wired story picked up by the mainstream media months later.

Rant ended.
posted by digaman at 1:10 PM on August 20, 2003

I'm in violent agreement with the rational middle--as a consultant, I spend a good 6-8 hours a day, on average, trying to wrestle clean, compelling arguments into PowerPoint without killing them. If you've ever worked with folks who have come up through the top-tier management consulting firms (not Accenture) you'll find that the smart ones have spent a lot of time figuring out how to make something worthwhile and compelling out of a PPT presentation. (The brain-dead ones just drone on, reading slides, like everybody else, no matter where they're from.)

Regarding Tufte, my infatuation with his insight died quickly when I realized that his real gift is for shooting fish in a barrel. I find that his most "convincing" cases are all criticisms of people who were doing info design in seriously constrained circumstances. He usually ends up heaping the poor bastard's shitty circumstances back on the guy as blame--I think that most of his 'victims' would agree with his critiques, would claim that they had all the same reservations themselves, and would tell him to get off his friggin' high horse and get a job in the friggin' real world, instead of cherry-picking high-profile, low-risk projects from his ivory tower. Ever notice that the items everyone always talks about from Tufte books--like the Stalin poster and the map of Napoleon's attack on Russia--are things he found, not things he did?
posted by LairBob at 2:04 PM on August 20, 2003

(Sorry--the cosmonaut poster (middle of page) is the really cool one, not the cover of Tufte's PowerPoint diatribe. Really gorgeous, but perfect case in point--why is Tufte the one selling it for a profit?)
posted by LairBob at 2:20 PM on August 20, 2003


Oops. Didn't mean to offend (what are the chances we have a Wired staffer at MeFi?). 1000 lashes.
posted by Quartermass at 2:23 PM on August 20, 2003

No offense taken! Just excitement over good stuff that my fellow MeFiers might have missed. Thanks.
posted by digaman at 2:26 PM on August 20, 2003

Not being the sort to use business type software unless at gunpoint, I only recently (like 7 days ago) discovered PP. After figuring out what all the buttons do (about 5 minutes of my life), I immediately started looking at it as an art tool and getting ideas for how to use it in a very non-business minded sort of way.

I agree with what other have commented ... it's not the software itself that is the problem, it's that it's so easy to use that any boring and uninspiring person can sit down having never even used it before and create really boring, uninspiring presentations. I have seen my fair share of "snoozers" too. :D
posted by Orb at 2:31 PM on August 20, 2003

got paid a good sum to turn some sociology courses into powerpoint for a professor (who was still using chalkboard and overheads but has no idea how to work a computer except for email and word)

Give me a professor with a chalkboard any day of the week. A chalkboard (and to a lesser extent an overhead projector with dry-erase markers) is an active teaching tool. Clicking through PowerPoint slides is mind-numbingly passive.

The sales pitches I've sat through where the drone had the balls to dispense with PowerPoint and use a flipchart/whiteboard coupled with a nicely printed brochure/whitepaper were the best I've been in.
posted by Cerebus at 2:38 PM on August 20, 2003

nice article on the autism thing. i really think that article describes me... which is scary cos that means i have a 'dash of autism' or aspergers or im a freakin' hypochondriac. the last one doesn't offer me the option of being the next BillG.

good thing i'm shacked up with a tanned beach bunny who understands my quirks if this is a genetic pairing thing...
posted by shadow45 at 2:57 PM on August 20, 2003

oh, sorry. not tryin to threadjack.. just tryin to thank the man.
posted by shadow45 at 2:59 PM on August 20, 2003

posted by digaman at 3:16 PM on August 20, 2003

anyways, powerpoint is freaking easy. I had never used it before in my life, but had to create something for a presentation on HIPAA stuff at work. So I plunged in, and it was so simple. I spent about 3-4 hours working on a total of about 6 slides, but they looked like i threw them together in Photoshop. The tables took some getting used to, but you get what you put into it. If you use the themes and bullets it defaults to your slides will be just as boring as filling them with paragraphs of text.
posted by shadow45 at 5:20 PM on August 20, 2003

Your 3-4 hours of working slides in PowerPoint would have been 20-30 minutes of writing it out in paragraph form, I'll warrant.

There's a point in there somewhere, I'm sure.
posted by Cerebus at 5:44 PM on August 20, 2003

PowerPoint and email are the two primary causes for the degeneration of written communication over the past decade.
posted by quadog at 9:05 PM on August 20, 2003

no, Cerebus- I wanted to win a competition between each other department at where I work, and I did. So I took my time, and being the kind of guy who isn't an artist, it takes me a while to truly perfect my layouts and stuff.

You should have seen me work on my resume, it took weeks! But i bet you could bust out a ruler and measure the whitespace on it, heh.
posted by shadow45 at 4:32 AM on August 21, 2003

Um ... it's probably worth mentioning that you DO NOT HAVE TO BUY POWERPOINT to be 100% compatible ... plus with Open Office you get a better graphics editor on top

Disclaimer: I've been using M$ Powerpoint professionally for 7 years now (indeed not at Accenture, LairBob)
posted by magullo at 5:32 AM on August 21, 2003

Email, IMs, and blogs are the primary causes for young people to be writing at all over the past decade, other than compulsory school papers.

I have no opinion of PowerPoint, because I never use it, nor have I ever seen information in that form that was helpful.
posted by digaman at 8:30 AM on August 21, 2003

Powerpoint doesn't kill presentations, people kill presentations!
posted by daveg at 8:54 AM on August 21, 2003

Grrr... now this is getting ridiculous. Got a PowerPoint attachment today from a company that was merely an invitation for some reception. Why the heck did that need to be in PowerPoint?
posted by gyc at 2:37 PM on August 21, 2003

Byrne isn't alone in using PowerPoint for non-business, artistic applications. Just sayin'.
posted by soyjoy at 9:55 AM on August 22, 2003

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