YAPPiE* blog entry

That’s “Yet Another PowerPoint is Evil.” You’d think people would know better by now.

I don’t like PowerPoint.  I like Keynote slightly better, because it’s easier to drop in and manipulate pictures.  I use slideware for one of three reasons:

  1. I’m rushed.
  2. I’m tired, or just lazy.
  3. One of my many bosses wants a presentation.

Heidi Miller did a very good summary of the right way (or perhaps the least-wrong way) to use PowerPoint, if you must. She also pointed me to a lifehacker.org posting by Chris Brogan that, if followed, would make me feel 80% better.

When I was getting my MS we did many team presentations. The best one we ever gave, for a Project Management class, and the one that got the highest score, had slides with very few words. In my section, the slides had no words. We had an org chart, we had pictures of what we were building, we had logos of all the partners, and we had video loop of three asteroids in a star field. We also had a very large (100x120cm, I think) foam-board-backed poster of the master project schedule Gantt chart set up on an easel. You couldn’t read anything, but you could clearly see the calendar, task bars and milestones, and we talked to that chart in every part of the presentation. The effort we put into preparing that one poster forced us to know our project cold, and be completely prepared for delivering the presentation.

Chris and Heidi focused on how mind-numbing PowerPoint can be, particularly when people read bullets. When I practiced with my classmates, I would start out softly saying “Don’t read the slide.” Sometimes that was enough, sometimes we would end a practice session with me making air-horn sounds from the back of the room and yelling “Don’t read the slide!”

That was in May of 2002. I had seen Edward Tufte’s course on visualizing information at least a year earlier, in which he talked for about five hours without a single slide. In fact, he spent 20 minutes or so railing against slideware, using the hand-drawn slides from the Challenger loss as the organizing event.  I carried Visual Explanations to class, trying to convince my classmates that we could and should do better.

Challenger, Tufte argued, was in part the result of a failure to organize and present crucial engineering information, information that cannot be distilled to slides.  The cognitive style of PowerPoint was going to get people killed.

Columbia’s loss eight months later was traced in part to an engineering culture that failed to communicate, in part because slideware does not preserve critical information required to make good engineering decisions. PowerPoint is fine for summaries, but the details behind the presentation also have to be complete and well-organized. We write requirements documents and IRCDs to make clear what we’re building, and summarize them in PowerPoint presentations. If we are ever reduced to doing just the PowerPoint, Rodger and Peter and Marc and Matt should make us start over.

Decision by Presentation is sales, not engineering. Everybody who says anything of any importance in presentations should first read The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint. (I’ll buy one for you, but you have to buy me a Mocha and a scone at Starbucks when you’ve read it, so we can discuss it. 🙂 )

Tufte also argued that PowerPoint is what you use when you want to hide information, or want to hide the fact that you don’t have information. Salescritters do this all the time: You put up an MTBF for a disk array, and because the chart is small you don’t have to unpack the numbers, explain how they are measured, describe the failure distribution curve, or talk about why the real numbers are so crappy. Asking questions about a bullet on a slide is likely to lead to lots of handwaving and prevaricating.

When I do talks for Teela’s class or other kids on Hubble, I use lots of pictures. I use quotes sometimes, and talk about what the quote means to me. I like talks that have diagrams, like the great talk that Mike Swam gave at NOAA on OPUS: Lots of diagrams of how OPUS components interact, very few bullets spent any time on the screen.

If you catch me doing PowerPoint, ask me for the writeup that goes with it. Unless I’m rushed or tired, I probably have copies with me, and I’ll email you the PDF if I don’t.  If I don’t have the writeup that goes with the PowerPoint, you should be suspicious.  It may be that I was busy, and simply haven’t organized it in a way that meets my self-imposed standards.  I’ll be happy to send the writeup when I’m done.

But it may be that I was tired, or lazy, and my conclusions should not be trusted. If you call me on it, I’ll tell you which, and let you judge for yourself.


Explore posts in the same categories: Communication

3 Comments on “YAPPiE* blog entry”

  1. Swell post, Tom. I love your additional thoughts on this. Thanks for taking it up a notch, and for the great stories. : )

  2. sarcheag Says:

    mm. luv it 🙂

  3. sandrar Says:

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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