PowerPoint, babies and bathwater

Posted on May 1, 2010 3:29 pm by | Presentations

Shel HoltzSeth Godin’s a pretty smart guy but he’s no more immune than the rest of us from saying dumb things. Last week, in a post that added to the chorus of voices criticizing Microsoft’s PowerPoint, Godin wrote, “If there was any other tool as widely misused in your organization, you’d ban it.”

Not if it was a valuable tool when used correctly, I wouldn’t. After all, if we adhered to that philosophy, we’d ban access to social media in companies where employees abused it. Twenty-five years ago, we would have banned desktop publishing when every department in the company began producing 8-1/2x11-inch newsletters with six columns, 14 fonts and 27 pieces of clip art on every page.

Take a bigger step back and consider painting. The percentage of people who apply brush to canvas and produce beautiful works of art is probably very low. Most who take up painting are rank amateurs and their paintings are awful. Should we ban canvas?

There’s nothing new about the PowerPoint-is-evil meme. Information design wizard Edward Tufte made the evilness assertion in a Wired article back in 2003. The latest brouhaha kicked into gear when The New York Times quoted U.S. Marine Corps Genereal James N. Mattis declaring that “PowerPoint makes us stupid.” The article also recalls that Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster banned PowerPoint in his unit. “It???s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” McMaster told the Times. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

True, but that means people need to be taught the right and wrong uses of PowerPoint. Would you get rid of hammers if your employees were using to pound screws into wood? No, you’d teach them to use a screwdriver and show them when it’s appropriate to use a hammer.

Every PowerPoint presentation begins with a blank slate. The default slide is a title slide, not one for bullet points. Books like “Presentation Zen and Beyond Bullet Points demonstrate how to create amazing presentations in PowerPoint. And who can deny the popularity of SlideShare, which is jam-packed with PowerPoint presentations that have become a resource for all kinds of research.

Even bullets can be useful. When I use them it’s to highlight the transition in my talk from one key theme to another. And Cluetrain co-author David Weinberger sees value in bullets, noting in a recent post, that “we ought to remember that Powerpoint made business thought and expression more rigorous and structured.”

Truth be told, I have seen some amazing presentations created in PowerPoint by people who were well trained and took the time to do it right.

Banning PowerPoint because you haven’t bothered to train people to use it is a classic example of throwing out the baaby with the bathwater.

Searching on phrases like “great PowerPoint presentations,” I came upon dozens of posts that linked to some amazing presentations created with this tool so many people are ready to dismiss. Here are just a couple:

If you search for PowerPoint tips, you’ll find scads of them that smart people have assembled and shared for free on their blogs. There are also plentyh of books that can help, including the two mentioned above and one that’s rarely mentioned but I find incredibly useful: “Purpose, Movement Color,” by Tom Mucciolo.

What are some of your favorite PowerPoint presentations?

05/01/10 | 9 Comments | PowerPoint, babies and bathwater



  • 1.Shel,

    Well written and it won't be a surprise that I agree.

    This has been a popular topic of discussion where I work this week - also not a big surprise. And my colleagues are pretty passionate about how a good presentation starts with the presenter. The tool is just that, a tool that aids the presentation.

    A bad talk is a bad talk with or without the aid of slides or other props.


    Tom Murphy | May 2010 | Seattle, WA

  • 2.Shel,
    I'll echo Tom's comments. I believe that sometimes people confuse the visual aid with the presentation itself. I have found that some audiences, for example Uni students when I was lecturing, want to have more information on the slides that I wanted to provide as the visual aid. The solution is to do a separate presentation for the take home than for the presentation, not to abandon the tool.

    There are other similar tools out there. And for Mac users, you have my sympathy because PPT for Mac does not have the functionality and ease that it does on PC. But none of that takes away from the value of a visual aids in presentations if used properly as you have described.

    Cheers, geoff

    Geoff Barbaro | May 2010 | Melbourne, Australia

  • 3.Shel,

    Add me to the list on this one. You're right.

    Based on the logic as originally presented, we would have banned automobiles long ago. The insurance costs considerably more.

    To add on to something Geoff offered, don't cry for Mac users. Most of us have since moved on to Keynote, which is by far the better and more intuitive program.


    Richard Becker | May 2010 | Las Vegas

  • 4.Shel, Great point! As someone that gives a lot of presentations I have to say I couldn't live without PowerPoint (or Keynote)! I invest a lot of time and energy into making my slides zing and always make copies available to clients. Let's put this PP is Bad meme to bed and move on to share how to make great presentations! That's the real issue.

    Prezi is an interesting place to start, but Keynote is still my favourite presentation tool.

    Jon Buscall | May 2010 | Stockholm

  • 5.Absolutely - I get fed up with people knocking the tool, but then again it's no surprise given that most people learn how to use PowerPoint from watching other (poor) users of the tool. So bad habits are passed on. This was my response to Seth's post, by the way - 'Let's stop blaming Powerpoint for poor presentations'.

    Robin Houghton | May 2010 | Lewes, UK

  • 6.Absolutely agree. PowerPoint presentations are only dangerous because we let them be. Educating yourself on how to give a great presentation will lead to less of those boring, read word for word from the slide presentations you are used to.

    Maranda Gibson | May 2010

  • 7.Shel -
    With due respect for the valid points you make about the usefulness of slides, the examples you show from slideshare are not presentations. They are well crafted documents and can (and do) stand alone quite nicely. A presentation requires a presenter - a person speaking to an audience. We usually bring an audience together to "hear" a talk, not to "read" our magic lantern show. Successful communication is still something that happens best between people. That's why our presidential campaigns (for one example) are conducted without PowerPoint slides.

    Mike Landrum | May 2010 | New York

  • 8.Mike, I don't disagree, but I think you're missing my point. I grabbed these to show that PowerPoint doesn't have to be used to create confusing graphics or wordy bullet points. I would have used a couple of my own PowerPoints but, because they ARE speaker support, they wouldn't have stood on their own without my narrative. But whether you use it for speaker support or to stand alone, you can still be creative with the blank canvas. Incidentally, if my presentations don't involve visuals, I don't use the visual aid.

    By the way, regardless of your views on the subject matter -- strictly from the speaker support perspective -- what did you think of Al Gore's use of PowerPoint in "An Inconvenient Truth?" For me, the movie was primarily a clinic on how to use speaker support AV.

    Shel Holtz | May 2010

  • 9.Shel, Absolutely Al Gore's film is a nearly perfect use of the tool - props to Nancy Duarte for creating the excellent, spare, high impact visuals. But if you tried to send someone the "deck" they would not get half the significance of that talk without Al to guide them.

    In my experience coaching business speakers, I find they use PowerPoint mainly as a place to hide. Yes, the program does enforce good discipline, a sort of linear structure and a certain credibility (well it's written out on a big screen so it must be true) - but in my estimation a competition between the greatest slides and the greatest speaker (Reagan, Clinton, Obama, Zig Ziglar?) the human being will take the prize every time.

    PowerPoint has certainly raised the floor for business presenters - there are fewer flat lousy speeches now. But it has also lowered the ceiling - today even the best speakers give their power away to the gee whiz junk on the screen.

    Mike Landrum | May 2010 | New York

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