Discuss: Powerpoint is the enemy?

April 27, 2010  |  Discussion, Misc. Visualization

Confusing PowerPoint

In reference to the above, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, leader of the American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, joked during a meeting, "When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war." The rest of the NYT article goes on to describe the suck that is Powerpoint.

Is Powerpoint really that bad though? I know we like to poke fun sometimes, but is it a limitation of the software, or is it users' lack of design skills? I mean there's a site dedicated to beautiful slide decks. Browse through those, and you start to think maybe it's the latter.

So we have a chicken-and-the-egg problem. Do people just not know how to use Powerpoint or does Powerpoint push people to the bad side? Sound off in the comments below.

[Thanks, Julia]

54 Comments

  • PPT the enemy?

    That is like saying wrenches are the enemy since we some times have backed-up sinks.

    The problem is people have no idea how to present complicated data in easy to understand ways.

  • The most recent versions of powerpoint have grown leaps and bounds in providing users with tools to create a really great presentation. You can manipulate almost any aspect of your deck. With such a wide range of capabilities, you can’t hold the software accountable for your shortcomings. Powerpoint is a tool. Adobe Creative products allow you to create some really terrible design work, but no one would ever say that Adobe was responsible for all the terrible design in the world… bad designers are. Blaming powerpoint is just an excuse for people who suck at design and don’t know anything about a balanced presentation. Do we really need the “spiral fly in” effect? Probably not. But powerpoint isn’t MAKING you use it.

  • Of course you can do beautiful things in ppt. There are micro-consulting firms that will do true pieces of art.
    But for the rushy day to day, I like something like prezi. It is smart and simple, and so far it has a very strong impact.
    I am not on pins and needles to see what ppt will do next, but I can hardly wait to know what the next user friendly flash app will be.

    Seriously, give the prezi a shot!

  • Mike Woodhouse April 27, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    Powerpoint’s main sin is in making it easy to produce bad presentations. Keynote, from the Mac-based presentations I’ve seen, appears to be similarly adept. They make it easy to be lazy.

    How might they be better? Less “wizards”? Make it harder to quickly bash out lists of bullet points and easier to locate and use images?

    A problem is that although people may know that pictures are better, they believe they have no artistic ability. Which is nonsense, as Jon Skeet’s epic presentation at Stackoverflow London DevDay last year demonstrated (http://msmvps.com/blogs/jon_skeet/archive/2009/11/02/omg-ponies-aka-humanity-epic-fail.aspx)

  • Note & Point only shows that good designers are not hobbled by their tools.

    However if, like me, you are incredibly directionless when making a slide deck, awful software like PowerPoint is just crippling because it leads you in the wrong direction.

  • I am a big fan of Keynote. Powerpoint has indeed gotten better but (at least the mac version) does not have the features that I would really like in terms of smart alignment guides, auto sizing and other useful tools. Keynote does have those and so I prefer to present in Keynote.

    I definitely think it’s the people and not Powerpoint/Keynote that are at the root of the problem.

  • Jason Alderman had a fantastic Ignite presentation on the history and use of PowerPoint (starting at 1:30). He mentions Tufte’s distaste for PowerPoint, but makes the argument that PowerPoint is a tool, giving examples of how different speakers use the PowerPoint to enhance or accommodate their speaking styles.

    I’m in that world. I try to dump the bullets and use mainly images with some text when it is really needed. On the other hand, making a good presentation takes a good deal of time and this is often pushed off by the presenters. Maybe the problem is that PowerPoint makes bad communication look acceptable and lets it hide behind the facade of technology. But I’m not convinced that we can then blame bad communication on PowerPoint.

  • I don’t think Powerpoint itself is bad, it can be reasonably flexible for document design, and it lends itself well to high-level summarization.The template system sucks, though.

    The problem is the culture that Powerpoint engendered. I’ve heard horror stories from clients, especially those in government, where every bit of moderately important information that they encounter at work in a day is accompanied by a slide presentation, when most things could be summarized neatly on one page. It creates a kind of mid-level form of information, creates the illusion that less significant bits of info are more important (and that the author is serious/well-organized), but without having to go too deep into any kind of analysis.

    So Powerpoint isn’t bad, it’s the beasts that it gave birth to.

  • As with much software it’s the poor use of the product that should come under scrutiny first.

  • Edward Tufte makes a compelling argument that powerpoint is the problem. I was pretty firmly in the “it’s the user” camp until I took his workshop.

    • @Julie…can you provide or point me towards a summary of Tufte’s objections to ppt? I’ve certainly seen my share of awful ppt presentations, but I’ve also seen some very compelling ones, so I am–at least at this point–in the “it’s the user” camp. Perhaps a quick set of bullet points would help me!

      • @Pete: Tufte’s criticisms of ppt could fill a book. And have! See “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within.”

        Don’t worry, it’s a short book—more of an essay really—but may take a little more time to read than a comparable deck of bullet points :p

  • powerpoint is not the enemy but it’s definitely not your friend.
    the more recent versions of powerpoint are full of features which will not help you deliver or organize your presentation but make it more complex (animated slide transitions, for instance, will never save the day).
    also most business people have terrible presentation traiining (like: no more than 7 bullets per slide). These people and those who believe that a “presentation” and a “powerpoint file” miss the point: a presentation is really about a message.

    This is not unlike what’s happening in the data vis space.

    that being said, presentations (including ppt-backed ones) can be truly inspiring. I can’t believe I’d be the first to mention http://www.presentationzen.com ? Garr’s 2 books are worth reading.

  • I would place blame evenly between Powerpoint and the clueless presenter. Powerpoint makes it incredibly easy for a lazy presenter to believe that he won’t need to practice or polish his presentation, because it’s all right there on the slide to read to the viewers. Since people will very rarely tell someone that this is wrong wrong WRONG, it’s a situation that occurs in 90% of the presentations I see. Powerpoint only ends up being the scapegoat because it’s what the majority of us use for our terrible presentations, but other programs are just as guilty. I don’t think there’s any presentation software that discourages people from doing this, unfortunately. Until we can somehow train people to understand that slides are for outlining and figure/picture presentation alone, and that you (yes, YOU) are responsible for the content, that won’t change.

  • There are a few things wrong with the Time’s choice of that image to accompany this article:

    1) that chart almost certainly wasn’t created inside of PowerPoint
    2) even if it was created with PowerPoint, it is complex, nuanced, interconnected and non-linear; the exact opposite of the criticisms of PPT contained in the article.
    3) a good portion of the article is spent implicitly bemoaning the time spent by officers creating PowerPoints, but this particular slide comes from a deck created by a civilian company, PA Consulting.

    All that being said – blaming PowerPoint is a crutch. Blame the craftsman, not the tools.

    • I agree Alex on this: if that graphic was made in Powerpoint, I’ll eat my laptop. I actually think it’s pretty damn’ cool: it just had the misfortune to have been presented on a PP slide instead of on an A3 full colour hand-out that the meeting attendees could study and read at leisure.

      One of the biggest problems I’ve heard about the management of the war in Afghanistan is the ‘inter-connectedness’ of it all — civilians that could be insurgents, local government officials that could be crooks, rumor taken as gospel. It’s a messy, complex place … just like that graphic.

      McChrystal may have said it jokingly, but it’s the truth: if they can untangle (‘understand the slide’) that mare’s-nest of connections, they might be able to change the courses of the war. Maybe.

    • I agree that the image wasn’t created in PowerPoint–it looks like Vensim or one of the other System Dynamics modeling applications.

      It’s detailed, nuanced, and horribly complex (as such interaction graphs often are). I think that there’s no way that such a graph could be presented meaningfully in PowerPoint without grossly simplifying it. Such a graph needs to be printed at high resolution, or displayed in a dynamic environment where the interactions can be explored.

      This leaves the question: is the problem with displaying such a graph in PowerPoint that PowerPoint is the wrong tool for the job, or that the user was stupid enough to use the wrong tool?

    • The graphic looks like it’s been done in http://cmap.ihmc.us/conceptmap.html

      At least, that open source application allows for doing such knowledge models.

      • It wasn’t ConceptMap. Note the spline-based shape of the edges (arrow-lines), the double-hash marks across some of them, and the stock-and-flow structure in the green section. As I recall, this notation was introduced by Jay Forrester, one of the leading developers of the method. Only VenSim, http://www.vensim.com, produces these specific renderings.

        This is a continuous-variable simulation, whose purpose is to understand what factors influence the shift in population attitudes between “supports government” and “supports insurgents.” If these factors can be understood and adjusted in the real world, populations can be shidfted away from supporting insurgents, an the war will be won, b winning the hearts of the people.

        More about this type of model can be learned at Wikipedia’s article on Systems Dynamics, at VenSim’s site or be a search of the web.

      • CmapTools does splines :D

  • I think a key problem is that PowerPoint (and Excel) make it very easy to create decent looking output without regard to the content. On occasion I’ve grabbed the wrong column of data in Excel, clicked a couple buttons and PRESTO – I’ve got a (basic) good looking graph with utter nonsense in it.

    I really enjoyed the recent Dilbert series in which Asok’s nose grew (a la Pinocchio) every time he saw a lie in a PowerPoint presentation. PowerPoint is too ubiquitous and used unwisely.

    I’m curious too about why Tufte felt PowerPoint was the enemy rather than a user problem.

  • I think Powerpoints main flaw is in the way it has crept into every meeting, no matter if it needs a presentation or not. I work at a small company, and I seriously doubt that we “need” ppt slides at every one – it fills time, looks jazzy on the surface, but in reality holds very little information. Slides are either so jammed full of information that you lose what the real message is, or are so sparse as to be utterly pointless. If you’re just reading off the slide during the presentation, then there’s no need. If a slide is full of pictures and graphs and small text, there’s no need. A good presentation doesn’t deal in distilling the message down to four bullet points on the penultimate slide, it complements the information being related orally.

  • I think the problem is much bigger than “bad PowerPoint.” People use and recycle PowerPoint pages instead of thinking. I write speeches for a living, and it is often difficult to tear a client a way from a pile of slides that are familiar and comfortable and add up to a big, fat communications zero. My wish: organize your information with PowerPoint, if you like. Print out your decks and pass them around, either before or after a meeting. But if you’re in a meeting, then talk!

  • Tufte’s objection is not that you can’t do pretty things with PowerPoint as at http://noteandpoint.com/

    His objection, and that of many PP critics, is that PP fights against the presentation of clear, accurate, and deep information… focusing on scientific information.

    Just because PP makes fun marketing slides does not make it a good tool for scientific communication.

  • Dan Warren April 27, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    I have seen spectacular presentations given using Powerpoint, and I have seen horrible talks given using Powerpoint. There may be better tools out there, but the tool is nowhere near as important to the final product as the person using it.

  • This retired Marine general makes a pretty convincing case that it’s not the users, it’s actually the tool.

    http://www.afji.com/2009/07/4061641

  • Wonder if that infographic could work as a prezi? The all-at-once picture is absurd, but there’s a story buried in there (somewhere).

    http://prezi.com/rhmtbwld0cvy/academy-10-ways-to-say-it-with-prezi/

    fwiw, all IT folks at most companies I’ve worked for have complained about ppt files at some point. It could be evil in several different ways.

    CG

  • ‘Thousand points of light. No new taxes. Read my lips.”

    Perfect powerpoint-ese, and no, Bill Gates did not create the problem and Steve Jobs did not solve it. My rap on these tools is that they are so damned simple that any damned fool can use them, which only encourages the fools to do so. If they were hard to use and took a lot of time, more thought would go into the content, rather than waiting to the last minute to slap something together.

    Besides, they are so back-then. Today, if you really want to communicate, try to keep it under 140 characters. (I see I’m over my limit already).

  • This references problems of the user, not the tool. It is easy to use many tools badly, software or otherwise. It takes a little work to make a good spreadsheet. It also takes work use your HDTV properly.

    Many people simply don’t make the time to learn how to build better slides. Worse, audiences don’t demand anything better. It is just easier to blame the tool.

  • I think its mainly just the users. Powerpoint is a great simple program but when this sort of level of complexity comes into it there is just no way it will be able to handle that amount of information.

  • I curated this large list called powerpointless? for a couple of years and in aggregate I think it supports the notion that PowerPoint is the enemy.

    http://sooper.org/misc/ppt

    Michael

  • The General unwittingly got the point. When he understands local society, he will have won the war.

    I have seen powerpoint used to tell stories with amazing effect. I think we must have the story first though.

    Most times, it is useful for delivering the type of “road map” the General yearns for. Ploddy, 1, 2, 3. It’s useful for delivering an outline in a form that we can remember. It’s not bad discipline for a college professor. Say what you have to say in 15 slides, including introduction, what we did before, point of this class, model, example, implications, homework. And make sure all the MC questions are embedded. It’s efficient for a whirlwind whistlestop tour when people are getting oriented.

    And most of us use it for simple graphics and then import it into other formats. It’s good at that.

  • I would agree that the problem rests more with the users than the tool. But I would argue it’s as much the audience’s fault as it is the author’s.

    Audiences want their information like everything else they get, fast and cheap. The less they have to think, the better for them. As author’s, we allow ourselves to feed into this. Too many times I’ve been told by a supervisor to change something because the audience won’t “get it” right away. Some things can’t be understood in a single bullet point. Slides should not be the audience’s take away notes. The author needs to understand this, but so does the audience. I see PPT as a good tool for briefing the press, but not military leaders. As an audience, they should demand deeper understanding.

  • Thanks for the kind words from several of you about Note & Point. We agree with the majority that the tool (PPT/Keynote/etc) is just a tool and the content/package is what sells.

    Time and time again it has been proven that design can make or break your content. Take the time to make it right or hire someone to help and it will make all the difference in the world.

    Great thoughts by all.

  • I’ve become convinced that an effective presentation generally includes a spoken delivery, some sort of visual support to the spoken delivery, and a take-away written summary to ensure that the audience accurately captures the key points of the presentation. Those are three separate pieces, each requiring some basic understanding of the differences in oral, written, and visual presentations.

    When done well, each reinforces the other to create a memorable learning experience that connects with the audience, no matter their preferred learning style.

    The difficulty is when all three are conflated into a powerpoint — the text is written on the slides, the slides are printed out as the handout, the speaker reads off the slides and then rephrases what he/she just said (largely due to the differences in oral and written language.)

    For simple topics, no visual reinforcement may be needed. But for more complex topics, especially those involving data or models of interrelationships, the images are critical to provide a framework for the audience to understand the oral presentation.

    Powerpoint can be an effective tool in presenting hte visual aspects of the presentation (as can a number of other tools). But trying to use powerpoint to create either the verbal speech or the handouts is almost invariably disastrous.

  • I think part of the problem is that they made individual slides for each of those main sections. Those were actually somewhat manageable. But then they put them all together and… well… disaster.

    They continue the PPT by highlighting various areas for various reasons. So what they’re trying to do is encapsulate all the information in one nugget, then filter and highlight from that to make their points. Normally, this would be a valid methodology.

    However, since the subject matter here is so complex, it really does it a diservice to try to cram it all together. It becomes meaningless.

    You can see the full PDF of the deck here:
    http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/i/MSNBC/Components/Photo/_new/Afghanistan_Dynamic_Planning.pdf

  • techwarrior April 28, 2010 at 5:41 pm

    the utility of powerpoint is an interesting debate, but it’s a little worrisome that the bigger issue here isn’t about whether or not they should be USING it but that they don’t seem to UNDERSTAND what it’s telling them. say what you want about that image, but it does a pretty good job of encompassing the realities of the war in Afghanistan… and yet… the Pentagon folks don’t understand it.

    is it possible it’s not the powerpoint they can’t grasp but their actual strategy on the ground? isn’t that the inference one could come to? all debates on powerpoints +s and -s aside?

    this article touches on it, seemed a good read:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/meghan-ohara/diagram-of-a-war-strategy_b_555389.html

  • I’m convinced that slide was actually a picture image of a mind map that was pasted into powerpoint. that consulting company put it together and somebody at the pentagon got hold of it and mailed it to a buddy who circulated it further until it wound up in the hands of some junior officer that thought he would impress somebody with it.

    A mind map is a great way to illustrate and trace a complex topic (like, a war for example!). Creating that mind map could actually be done in less time than you would think if it was done with text and a bunch of smart people brain storming. The different issues thrown out would be classified as they go in (generating the colors) and later the issues would be connected through some kind of matrix/spreadsheet-looking interface. Generating the graphic is the software’s job.

    Generally speaking, I can’t see too many cases where a mind map belongs in a power point. If it’s simple enough to be displayed in powerpoint, you should just use power point. If it starts to look like the topic of our discussion, exit powerpoint, don’t bother saving and go find some mind map software.

    As I said earlier, you can have a discussion and trace things like a case study or “wargame” a scenario using the mind map to illustrate what did or could happen, but you would need the mind map, not powerpoint to make it work.

  • I have to argue that PowerPoint is the problem. Specifically, the medium of static-content, low-resolution “pages” that can only be communicated serially makes for a terribly limited communication environment. The basic purpose of PowerPoint is to provide a medium for communicating a message. How many messages can be communicated effectively at a resolution lower than a business card, serially, using only static content?

    I picked a presentation at Note & Point more or less at random and went through it. Graphically, the presentation looked great. There were even some parts that were clever and funny. Note & Point definitely demonstrates that a good designer can create visually attractive slides. Unfortunately, the primary message of the presentation was almost completely lost. There was slide after slide of screen shots to illustrate various points, but with no indication of whether these were considered “good” or “bad” examples. I was left thinking “yeah, I can imagine that these guidelines are good, but I haven’t learned anything about implementing them. I don’t even know if this designer can implement them.” If this is the best that an expert can do, how can the rest of us fair?

    In a presentation that runs on rails, PowerPoint might work to project a simple visual backdrop, as old-fashioned photo slide projectors do. As the communication medium that it’s used for, though, it sucks.


    By “static content,” I don’t mean that you can’t have animations or embed flash movies; I mean that you can’t easily change the content to clarify the message. You can’t easily add to it or make notes on it while talking in order to emphasize or clarify a point. You create your presentation, and then your presentation doesn’t change when your audience needs it to. Perhaps “static content” isn’t the right word…suggestions are welcome.

  • Powerpoint is really not the issue hear. sure, there’s a lot to say about powerpoint, but what I’d really like to see is a design makeover of this. It is indeed a complex subject matter, and there is the law of conservation of complexity, also known as: the multiplicity of the solution equals the multiplicity of the problem.

    But complexity can be untangled. What I’d really like to see is a design makeover of this diagram. Surely somebody out there can take this and make it intelligible,

  • I’m going to have to take issue with some of the comments about the diagram.

    The diagram is not ‘cool’ nor is it ‘detailed, nuanced, and horribly complex’. It barely scratches the surface of the situation. All it shows is a series of connections between generic actors and institutions from one perspective. It is only one way of seeing the situation in Afghanistan. On its own it fails as a didactic tool because, as Trevor Paglan has argued, visualisations like this don’t suggest a new form of analysis or way of seeing the relationship that are happening in ‘reality’.

    For instance, there is no information about the institutions/actors themselves – although i suspect there is a lot of background knowledge amongst the audience for whom this diagram was created. Moreover, there is no detail about the quality of the relationships – each arrow is the same and gives no understanding of the type of relationship (financial? cultural? social? etc), what it was, what it is now (is it improving?), what influences that institution/actor, who are the relations actually between? (e.g. not groups, but individuals) etc. There is no information beyond the fact there are relationships where the arrows go.

    Hugely complicated (and complex) situations like the impact of a war on a country can never be captured in any kind of visualisation. The elements one might try to capture are too ethereal to fully understand, let alone depict in a graphic. That’s even before the problems of visualising the relationships. There will always be compromises, simplifications and generalisations which in situations like this are not beneficial – they are potentially dangerous.

    To get an overview of the conflict in Afghanistan that is in anyway useful to affect some kind of change means being on the ground, speaking to and working with experts, liaising with locals etc. not drawing a diagram or listening to it being explained – life is far too complicated.

  • back on the debate, that this mind map is complex is not necessarily a bad thing. and it doesn’t make it a bad slide in a powerpoint presentation. Not everything in a powerpoint presentation must be understood effortlessly.

    what this slide tells us is the afghan situation is complex. It’s probably the best way to say it in just one slide. the audience got that point, they understood how complicated things were with that visual. just saying that things are complex wouldn’t have had the same impact.

    while I agree with the debate, and think that powerpoint – the tool – does hinder presenters, I still don’t agree with the example.

  • Reed Hedges April 30, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.”

    This is funny because it’s true. When you’re visualizing a complex situation, shouldn’t the visualization show the complexity? At the same time, we should be trying to find ways to design a visualization that lets the user explore and understand the complexity.

    So the headline illustration — the complex graph about Afghanistan — doesn’t condemn Powerpoint in any particular way, other than that Powerpoint doesn’t provide much in the way of tools for reformulating, decomposing, annotating, etc. a graph of relations like this, it just lets you put images resulting from such study and manipulation into a more or less linear, static presentation, which is a limitation we could look for solftware solutions to.

    • General Stanley’s comment is only true if you assume the diagram is an accurate depiction of the situation.

  • Wait, when did “decks” become the collective noun for Powerpoint slides? I’m so out of touch…

  • Pingback: Complex Chart

  • PowerPoint is awesome… at slideshows. So are Impress and Keynote.

    Before using, all you need to decide are two things: Is this an appropriate message to present as a slideshow? Is this an appropriate audience for a slideshow?

    Generally, slideshows are good for pitching to a non-peer (possibly internal) client/customer. …Whitepaper for an explanation to a non-peer, executive summary/abstract to pitch to a peer, [Technical] Paper/proposal to explain to peers. Sometimes, “peer” and “non-peer” are the same as “signed NDA” and “no NDA”.

    Enjoying the think-fodder, and thanks for reading this comment. I’m going to go spout off about this in my own corner now.

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