One Damn Slide After Another


From teachers in elementary schools to officers on the frontlines overseas, everyone uses PowerPoint for presentations. The slideshow software is an essential feature of any opening, closing, hearing, or client meeting. But be aware that PowerPoint has inspired some very trenchant critiques. One of the most well-known is Edward Tufte's The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/books_pp . This short book, or pamphlet has had a great influence on me. After reading it, you many never think of PowerPoint as an effective way to transmit information ever again.

PowerPoint for Tufte serves to impede the transmittal of information to viewers, rather than facilitate it. He begins with a chart which shows how few data points are presented in graphs used in a selection of more than 25 PowerPoint guides. Widely read journals like Science or Nature have more than 700 data points; the NYT and WSJ provide more than 100; but the PowerPoint guides only average a dozen - almost as bad as graphs used in the Soviet era Pravda newspaper.

Tufte slams the use of bullet point lists. He asserts that they are only good for showing hierarchies, sequences, or membership in a group. Using them when the relationship between the items is left unstated is a bad idea. For example, a typical business presentation may have these points on a slide:

  • Increase Profits

  • Increase Market Share

  • Introduce New Products

This list may confuse the audience as to what plan the presenter has in mind. Are new products going to be introduced only after profits have increased? Will the increase in profits allow a business to take steps to increase its market share? Or will new products simultaneously lead to more profits and a bigger market share?

Tufte's critique of a slide used in a presentation at Boeing to assess damage to the Space Shuttle Columbia is very dramatic. He faults the poor design of slide as contributing to the disaster. Tufte points out how the conclusion of the slide, noting the problem of tile damage, is squeezed in at the bottom.




He notes how the word, "significant" is used in different contexts in the slideshow (both to show a discernable amount in a scientific study, and to indicate enough damage to cause a fatality).



Tufte also debunks the so-called Miller Rule that a person can only take away as many as 7 points from a presentation or meeting. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Magical_Number_Seven,_Plus_or_Minus_Two )

Actually a person can only take away 7 new ideas or concepts when they are presented in a dull, unrelated context.

Tufte has a particular distaste for the so-called 'executive summary' title at the top of a slide. Often such titles are misleading. He warns against the use of poor or inconsistent typography, or the distorting effects of seemingly fancy three-dimensional graphs that can produce Necker illusions.

Read and absorb The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. While others can try to score points recommending the use of flashy slide transitions or rhapsodizing about the efficacy of slide background colors, you can point out how difficult it is to present a wide table of data on a single slide and discuss the numbing effect of being led slide by slide through a presentation, without a visual reference that shows the whole of the speaker's thoughts.