“PowerPoint makes us stupid.” So says Marine Corps General James N. Mattis in a widely shared New York Times article “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint”. The General’s comments are part of an ongoing debate within the military regarding the efficacy of this ubiquitous presentation software. However, the debate is not new, extending at least as far back as 2003 when Edward Tufte published both PowerPoint Is Evil in Wired Magazine and his provocative essay, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint.
What’s the rub? What so concerns the Joint Forces Commander and the renowned author of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information?
Here’s Tufte writing in Wired: “In a business setting, a PowerPoint slide typically shows 40 words, which is about eight seconds’ worth of silent reading material. With so little information per slide, many, many slides are needed. Audiences consequently endure a relentless sequentiality, one damn slide after another. When information is stacked in time, it is difficult to understand context and evaluate relationships. Visual reasoning usually works more effectively when relevant information is shown side by side. Often, the more intense the detail, the greater the clarity and understanding. This is especially so for statistical data, where the fundamental analytical act is to make comparisons.”
According to the Times piece, some in the military, including Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, believe the software is an “internal threat.” PowerPoint is “dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control…Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.” Its over simplification is said to stifle “discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making.”
At an outstanding one-day training seminar I attended last summer, Tufte had these further comments. PowerPoint is a “low resolution” form of communication that requires “the dreaded slow reveal,” putting a drag on the rate of information transfer. It keeps control of the information in the presenter’s hands — the “fallacy of authoritarian presentation” — and out of the audience’s hands, preventing them from fully engaging with the information. Finally, PowerPoint is typically marred by “gratuitous optical clutter,” what Tufte derisively refers to as “chart junk.”
So what’s the alternative? Tufte is insistent. If you are doing serious work presenting information that will lead to decision-making:
- Replace low-resolution presentation software (PowerPoint) with high-resolution word processing (Word).
- Use one sheet of 11″ x 17″ paper, folded to make a four-page handout capable of containing information equivalent to that in 200 to 250 PowerPoint slides.
- Speed the rate of data transfer, abandon the fallacy of authoritarian presentation and put the information into the hands of the audience before and during the presentation.
- Ensure that the design is simple and free of clutter and chart junk.
- Label all graphs and charts clearly and provide documentation for all sources.
- Maximize content reasoning time and minimize format decoding time.
- Respect the audience’s ability to analyze and provide insight into data and increase the expectation of their doing so.