PowerPoint makes you dumb.
December 15, 2003 7:51 AM   Subscribe

PowerPoint makes you dumb. This is something I've suspected for a long time. It's been reported in the NY Times, so it must be true. I will now blame every stupid thing I've said or done in the last three years on Microsoft.
posted by Loudmax (47 comments total)
From the horse's mouth.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 8:08 AM on December 15, 2003

Which came first:



[fade out / fade in]

the idea that everything...
-technical information
-meaning of life

can be presented via a bullet-pointed executive summary?

[spiral dissolve]

I think the latter.

[checkerboard fade to black]
posted by stonerose at 8:13 AM on December 15, 2003

PowerPoint is standard…
* …but bad.
* Why?
posted by leotrotsky at 8:18 AM on December 15, 2003

Before everyone goes off on the bandwagon of "it's the user's fault, not the tool" perhaps they should read Tufte's conclusion:
The practical conclusions are clear. PowerPoint is a competent slide manager and projector. But rather than supplementing a presentation, it has become a substitute for it. Such misuse ignores the most important rule of speaking: Respect your audience.

posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:22 AM on December 15, 2003

Great catch KirkJobSluder.
I agree that PowerPoint presentations tend to dumb down and oversimplify things.
Put that with the lack of respect for your audience and you have the reason our neocon chickenhawks in DC are knows as PowerPoint Rangers.
posted by nofundy at 8:37 AM on December 15, 2003

I consider myself lucky to have never had the kind of job that required me to sit through PowerPoint presentations.

Also, not everyone hates them.

I prefer Keynote, though.
posted by emelenjr at 8:39 AM on December 15, 2003

Agreed, KirkJobSluder. I had a class last semester where the teacher taught purely based on PP slides. There were like 50 of the friggin' things a class. Of course, ALL he did was read the damn things to us like we were in first grade. Every 1:15 class, just sitting in a chair falling asleep = pure torture. And then a lecture hall of 300 people realized that the presentations were on the Internet...I decided to show up to class one time for the helluva it midway through the semester, and there were 7 people there out of an enrollement of 230. I think I really got my money's worth from that class...
posted by jmd82 at 8:41 AM on December 15, 2003

I remember my first day of training at Gateway computers. The HR people led us into the auditorium, fired up the Powerpoint, and proceeded to read verbatim what was on the screen verbatim as if we were illiterate. I must say I should have taken that as an omen of things to come.

These days I run my own computer service store. I had another client, a seventy-six year old retirement investor who came to me wanting me to help him set up his brand new laptop, projector and PA system for a presentation that he was going to pitch to potential clients.

After we got everything fired up, I then sat and watched as he practiced his pitch by reading everything that the slide said on the screen.

I can't f'ing stand Powerpoint. Maybe it's the fact that if people put half as much thought into making a decent speech as they do about getting the animations and sound to play correctly we wouldn't be having so many complaints. I think Powerpoint distracts and detracts the audience and the message in much the same way I think AOL dumbs down the internet and keeps their users stupid.

(if you have AOL, sorry, this is something I have felt strongly about for some time. )

On another note The Gettysburg Powerpoint
posted by daHIFI at 8:44 AM on December 15, 2003

see also
posted by shoepal at 8:48 AM on December 15, 2003

Guess they're right about marketeering and manipulation of information :

* powerpoint sucking is not cause of bad presentation, it
only helps making worse presentation cause it sucks

* untrained brain is cause of bad presentation

* untrained magazine management is cause of further distortion of information of an already bad presentation

* marketing and engineering are distinct and separate; engineeringing must look for solid reliable solution to given problem, marketing must look for weaseling "just sell it" approaches to sell the stuff nobody wants.
posted by elpapacito at 8:52 AM on December 15, 2003

Gotta love the NYTimes' example
posted by tippiedog at 8:53 AM on December 15, 2003

Powerpoint is fine, as long as you use it well. If you get caught up in bullet points, and just reading what is on the slide, thats your own fault. As for this low resolution thing - whats that about? Surely it just uses the default desktop resolution?
posted by Orange Goblin at 9:02 AM on December 15, 2003

I know that at my old job, every time the powerpoint came out, as we used to say, "there was much gnashing of teeth and rolling of eyes."
posted by alex_reno at 9:12 AM on December 15, 2003

It's true that PowerPoint gets a bad rap for people making bad use of the software. Not really Microsoft's fault at all, but I thought the headline in the NY Times article was too funny to resist.

Also, I'm happy to see some anti-slideshow backlash in a mainstream newspaper. Not that I expect the phenomenon to go away (nor would I want it to, since slideshows can be enlightening if done effectively), but I would hope it should make some people put more thought into their presentations.
posted by Loudmax at 9:40 AM on December 15, 2003

I enjoy PowerPoint. I have used it to great effect in creating interactive games and enhancing presentations for delivery to elementary and middle school students. However, the images and information on the slides is used to enhance and extend the verbal information, not repeat it. Plus the students seem to enjoy all those goofy transistions and animations.

Also, from my reading of the article, the resolution they refer to means the density of data presented, not the actual number of pixels. Projected information is usually only legible at font sizes of 28+ points.
posted by piskycritter at 9:47 AM on December 15, 2003

Powerpoint is good (not great), but encourages evil (freaky bullet-pointed evil). I work with people who make excellent powerpoint presentations - in part because they're great designers, but mostly because they realize that it serves as an aide to a good presentation, and should not stand alone. Context, people, context!
posted by kahboom at 9:58 AM on December 15, 2003

Sorry ... still don't understand ... could someone summarize?
posted by devbrain at 10:02 AM on December 15, 2003

I hate powerpoint. I'd never had to endure it until now...I came back to school this year and every freaking class has powerpoint. Every single one! I hate it!

For all my other years in school we relied on the professor organizing his/her thoughts well enough so that we understood what was said. Now suddenly we just need to read the slides.

Possibly this is me being a luddite, but I find it much easier to concentrate on the lecture if I'm not constantly being distracted by animated images and faux attractive borders. If you have something you want me to see in print, can't you just write it on the board?

I have to use powerpoint for all my presentations now too, and this also bothers me. Why are these damn slide shows a freaking requirement at this point?
posted by Hildegarde at 10:10 AM on December 15, 2003

Never taken a class with Powerpoint lectures, but I imagine they're a step up from those friggin overhead projectors - especially the ones the professors would write on while they were talking...
posted by gottabefunky at 10:18 AM on December 15, 2003

PowerPoint makes you dumb – just look at that Talking Heads guy...
posted by Termite at 10:38 AM on December 15, 2003

"The use of COBOL cripples the mind; its teaching should therefore be regarded as a criminal offense." — EW Dijkstra (1930-2002).

Or, as Maslow put it, when the tool you've got skill with is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

I don't totally buy this -- when I was programming in TI Basic, I remember desperately wanting variable variables or some kind of macro facility, and later during high school actually concieving of an object-oriented messaging system. In both cases, the solution I wanted transcended the tools I had at hand. So I don't think you're always completely constrained by your tools, because humans can be pretty inventive. But I think this is actually more due to a habit of creativity, and that the tendancy in Maslow's and Dijkstra's statements is real.
posted by namespan at 10:44 AM on December 15, 2003

when the tool you've got skill with is a hammer, everything looks like a nail

If your hammer is big enough, everything is a nail.
posted by alex_reno at 11:25 AM on December 15, 2003

Again with the rants against PowerPoint? So can I just repeat what I said last time?

"Blaming PowerPoint for lousy presentations is like blaming Word for lousy literature, or Excel for a lousy bottom line."

PowerPoint hasn't made people dumb, but its ease of use has allowed dumb people to make presentations. Same thing happens with any technology. The simpler it's made, the simpler the user.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 11:31 AM on December 15, 2003

I dislike PowerPoint because of people's propensity for abusing it, but remember back when they had overhead projectors to convey information, they still read you everything that was on the freaking screen. However, I have lately been in the position of having to give some presentations to large audiences and I have found that audiences now have come to expect something to look at, preferably brightly colored, while the speaker is talking. With no visual aids, people get distracted often. This may be lame, but it has definitely been my experience.

With this in mind, I created a CSS PowerPoint emulator. It's dopey as hell, probably not standards compliant, but it looks like PowerPoint while at the same time not guiding my presentation or encouraging the use of sucky clip art the way PowerPoint does. As a result, I get to make presentations that look like this, carry them in to a talk on a floppy disk and have them online readable by all browsers by the time the talk is done. If there will be a laptop at your presentation you're not stuck with PowerPoint. If you hate it, use something else.
posted by jessamyn at 11:31 AM on December 15, 2003

I am a consultant. I've used PP way too many times to care to remember. PP has its uses and its advantages, but PP is too good; it's too simple and too powerful and so it tends to be overused:
  • It often replaces documentation: people forget that PP should be just a presentation aid and request .ppt files in lieu of documentation of often extremely complex topics. That's wrong and has to stop. The Columbia post-mortem hit this nail on the head. PP files should never be given to a customer/recipient instead of a more coherent and detailed document.

  • The slide format is a sales pitch; that's not PP's fault, it's the nature of the medium. When you write a short, easily-digestible slide of a complex topic you are bound to want to accentuate the positives and gloss over the negatives of your topic. That's human nature and PP makes it easy to do this (and combined with the above it's a dangerous combination). Respect your audience and present the negatives coherently and honestly; it's better long-term and you still have the advantage of you being the one breaking the bad news.

  • posted by costas at 11:36 AM on December 15, 2003

    Heh...I just came from a corporate update meeting where both the CEO and CFO read from the slides verbatim.
    posted by Yossarian at 12:06 PM on December 15, 2003

    The report on the conclusions on the space shuttle Columbia disaster also found that powerpoint is not a good tool for communicating, especially in an engineering environment.

    It stated that engineers who use Powerpoint in place of technical papers are more at risk of making miscommunications, vauge descriptions, and confusing inconsistencies in their attempts to be brief.

    Most importantly, they found that since sentences and phrases are often shortened to fit within a slide, important details or emphasis can often wind up left out entirely.
    posted by joquarky at 12:06 PM on December 15, 2003

    That's good jessamyn!
    posted by tr33hggr at 12:08 PM on December 15, 2003

    I agree with GhostInTheMachine.

    I can read a friggin' slide. If you're just reading the slide out loud, sit down and shut up - you're wasting my time, as I can read faster than you can speak, and your head is just getting in the way of the slide.

    The purpose of a lecturer is to provide additional information and insight - slides are visual aids, not the lecture itself.

    This article is not just useless, but offensive in that it implies that the NASA engineers responsible for indecision and poor response seek to use everything they can find, including their presentation software, as a scapegoat for a tragedy that cost lives, money, and ultimately set back the United States space program by years.
    posted by FormlessOne at 12:11 PM on December 15, 2003

    This will probably make a lot of people cringe, but I use PP when I need to make a relatively complicated diagram with lots of text, icons, flowchart-ish elements, etc... To me it's a tool to create vector graphics with all the template elements I need (Autoshapes), and that Average Joe office worker will be able to easily render and edit on their machine, be it Mac or PC. I'm not aware of any alternatives for this mode of use, not anything that's nearly as ubiquitous at least.
    posted by badstone at 12:47 PM on December 15, 2003

    At The Big Company where I work the new PowerPoint trick is to take slides from other PP presentations, shrink them down to almost icon size and then paste them in. The idea is to show that work has been done but not to actually show the work.

    Man, I long for the old days when I used More or Acta to create outlines, printed them to paper and then made copies on transparency film for use on the overhead projector. No color, few graphics, no animation, just data. I realize can also do that with PowerPoint, but no one ever does.
    posted by tommasz at 1:37 PM on December 15, 2003

    As a consultant, where my life is basically built around working on PP, I certainly appreciate the point of the article.

    What I've found is that people really react to ideas expressed as simple pictures. PP can be a very good tool for graphically presenting ideas. The point is that it should be a supplement to the speaker. Whenever I see all text slides accompanied by meaningless clip art, I cringe. But a good graph that shows a CEO that of his 3,000 customers only 1,000 are actually profitable is enormously useful.

    Powerpoint is not supposed to present nuance - it is a tool for distilling thought to a crisp argument. Obviously there is a potentially a huge amount of depth behind issues presented, but that often hinders decision making.
    posted by mtstover at 1:46 PM on December 15, 2003

    Ultimately, Tufte concluded, PowerPoint is infused with ''an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.''

    [...] And PowerPoint still has fans in the highest corridors of power: Colin Powell used a slideware presentation in February when he made his case to the United Nations that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

    That second bit seems to be more of a reinforcement of the primary argument than a counterpoint… maybe it's just me.
    posted by DrJohnEvans at 2:36 PM on December 15, 2003

    Well said, mtstover! Understanding how more information can actually hinder decision making is often what separates managers from engineers. Conversely, understanding that some problems can't be reduced to a simple one-slide description is often what separates engineers from managers.

    I find PowerPoint most useful when I have less than 15 minutes to speak, and I want people to remember a few key points.
    posted by fuzz at 2:45 PM on December 15, 2003

    The most ineffecient way of communicating or teaching is via lecture, whether accompanied by slides or not.

    Ultimately, Tufte concluded, PowerPoint is infused with ''an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.''

    [...] And PowerPoint still has fans in the highest corridors of power: Colin Powell used a slideware presentation in February when he made his case to the United Nations that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

    posted by fold_and_mutilate at 2:54 PM on December 15, 2003

    posted by spazzm at 3:05 PM on December 15, 2003

    PowerPoint allows dumb people to easily convey just how dumb they are.
    posted by inpHilltr8r at 3:18 PM on December 15, 2003

    The most ineffecient way of communicating or teaching is via lecture

    so is it more efficient to schedule an individual conversation with each of the 100 people you need to inform? just wondering...
    posted by badstone at 3:51 PM on December 15, 2003

    The most inefficient way of communicating or teaching is via lecture

    That's funny; I though it was via semaphore.
    posted by mr_roboto at 4:41 PM on December 15, 2003


    Dude, SliTeX is sooooooo LaTeX2.09. The cool LaTeX2e kids use prosper or the pdfslide package.

    Me, I like the pdfslide package because then I can just take a normal everyday \documentclass{report} and switch between the powerpointish (but static) slides and what amounts to a nicely printed version of my notes by leaving in or commenting out the \usepackage{pdfslide} .

    pdfslide will do fades and wipes and stuff, but then if you comment the package out you'd need to comment out the relevant lines with those calls in 'em too. I just live without.
    posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:27 PM on December 15, 2003

    i recently attended a round table between the EU Comission and representatives of Civil Society. One woman came from a Thai labour organisation and had prepared a complex ppt presentation.

    iit had background photod, lots of bullet points, elaborate flowcharts etc.

    unfortunately it was utterly unintelligible. a good opportunity to present her case was lost. true this was a bad use of powerpoint, but it shows how disatarously bad it can be.
    posted by quarsan at 10:00 PM on December 15, 2003

    Ghostinthemachine: "Blaming PowerPoint for lousy presentations is like blaming Word for lousy literature, or Excel for a lousy bottom line."

    Nope, I don't buy it. Blaming Power Point is much like blaming Word for a lousy bottom line, or Excel for lousy literature.

    Word will happily let you make charts, and Excel will happily let you write a book--but if you try to use them to do either, you will invariably end up with a substandard result, because they suck at it.

    Power Point is bad at making presentations because it actively encourages, through ridiculous templates and clip art and animations, bad presentation design. Sure, you can make it sit up and beg if you're good at it--much like Michelangelo could probably take a poor quality, irregular chisel/paintbrush and still make a masterpiece--but just because something can be used effectively by some, does not make it useful nor redeem it.

    Death to Power Point!
    posted by Swifty at 11:22 PM on December 15, 2003

    Jessamyn, I was about to write the same thing.

    My least favorite classes were taught with a teacher who used an overhead. Least!

    No wonder I've never fit into the corporate employee rubric. Anymore, I think it shuns me as equally as I shun it.

    Companies should hide this occasional anathema to some people in the questionaires of the hiring process.

    234.) When you were in school, did the sound of a running cooling fan in your classroom's overhead projector automatically induce you to yawn?

    You'd be nixed right there. It's totally pavlovian.
    posted by crasspastor at 11:55 PM on December 15, 2003

    *Funny thread

    Funny thread.
    posted by HTuttle at 12:10 AM on December 16, 2003

    Swifty, when have templates in any software ever been good? If you want to do something, do it yourself. No one is forcing you to use the clip art. Use your own images. Or are Microsoft so evil they now break your legs if you don't use a wizard to get something done? If something can be used effectively by a single person, then its useful. Most people can't even use a computer, let alone PP, but does that make them useless? I think not.
    posted by Orange Goblin at 2:27 AM on December 16, 2003

    So, one more time: To all the people out there saying that PPT is bad, the reasons given are sound and I tend to agree. However, the zealousness of some of the opinions seems to imply that there is some great and obvious alternative. What is it? Just use a white board? Don't use visuals? Just write mass emails? Do I have to buy Tufte's new book to find out?
    posted by badstone at 9:52 AM on December 16, 2003

    * PowerPoint encourages bad design
    * Bulleted lists lack depth and accuracy
    * Idiots with PowerPoint are still idiots
    posted by mosch at 2:10 PM on December 16, 2003

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