Chun: Stop Using Slide Decks

PowerPoint sucks, but you already knew that.

by Steven Chun | 1/18/18 12:30am

The ninth issue of the ninth volume of “InfoWorld: The PC News Weekly” from 1987 was filled with what one would expect for a magazine targeted at IT professionals and computer geeks. The front page advertised the new Macintosh II, replete with one megabyte of memory sold for $3,899 for one floppy drive and no display (nearly $8,500 in 2018 dollars). One page featured a story labeled “Presentation Package Lets Users Control Look” by Scott Mace. Mace writes that “Forethough Inc. last week introduced PowerPoint, a Macintosh program that lets users create and manage business presentations “using overhead transparencies, flip charts, speaker’s notes and handouts” and concludes that PowerPoint will be a catalyst in the new computerized business market. What Mace failed to prophesize is that PowerPoint would become the bane of the civilized world.

PowerPoint is a blight on everything from the boardroom to the classroom. Its generalized form, the slide deck — “deck” or “bureaucratic instrument designed to make the transfer of information as difficult as possible” — is good for one thing: presenting broad talking points to a large audience. Putting up large images and videos as one is speaking does no harm. Unfortunately, PowerPoint is often used where any other form of presentation, with the possible exception of song and dance, would work better.

We have “PowerPointed” academic presentations, corporate reports, technical plans, literary analyses, dissertations and at least several wedding proposals. In each case, PowerPoint misses the mark. Anything that requires complex analysis or conveys a meaning that cannot be captured in 40 words — the typical amount of text on a business PowerPoint slide — is not well suited for a slide deck.

In terms of mere information transfer, PowerPoint’s format is poor. Information on slides is sparse; sentences and paragraphs convey meaning far better than bullet points; the constant switching of slides introduces a cognitive load in of itself; and data visualizations fare no better on a slide than they do on paper, where they are more often closely accompanied by analysis.

PowerPoints also have a tendency to become documentation and presentation. Instead of the slides being a derivative of a more in-depth body of work, they instead represent the presentation and content. The skinny becomes the whole nine yards. If you have ever read through countless PowerPoint slides in an attempt to understand something, you know how awful this is.

As a student, I can attest to the shallowness of thought that one must put into an acceptable PowerPoint presentation. I can also attest to the relatively low rate of information transfer, as I am commonly on the receiving end of slide decks. A presentation is not a finished product — it is only a way to give a rough overview of real work.

Notably, Amazon has effectively banned PowerPoint presentations in its staff meetings. Instead, every meeting starts with a six-page memo and 20 minutes of silent reading. Considering that business meetings tend to be heavy on data and analysis, this makes sense. Writing forces you to think far harder about the information you present, and there are no pretty slides to hide behind.

Edward Tufte, professor emeritus of political science, statistics and computer science at Yale University, is one of the leading figures in information design and data visualization and an outspoken critic of PowerPoint. He believes that the overuse of PowerPoint has created a culture of pitching, instead of informing where objectivity is most needed. This bias can have disastrous results.

In 2003, the Columbia space shuttle burned up on reentry, killing seven and grounding the shuttle program for two years. NASA had noticed a piece of foam insulation break loose and strike the wing during liftoff. While Columbia was in orbit, an investigation was launched to determine the potential damage and threat. Tufte wrote “to help NASA officials assess the threat, Boeing Corporation engineers quickly prepared three reports, a total of 28 PowerPoint slides … The reports provided mixed readings of the threat to the spacecraft; the lower-level bullets often mentioned doubts and uncertainties, but the highlighted executive summaries and big-bullet conclusions were quite optimistic.”

The Return to Flight Task Group, formed to analyze the failures that led to the Columbia’s destruction, wrote, “We also observed that instead of concise engineering reports, decisions and their associated rationale are often contained solely within Microsoft PowerPoint charts or emails … PowerPoint (and similar products by other vendors), as a method to provide talking points and present limited data to assembled groups, has its place in the engineering community; however, these presentations should never be allowed to replace, or even supplement, formal documentation.”

From NASA reports to academic presentations at Dartmouth, PowerPoint is a shallow tool for shallow thinking. As more students aspire to careers in management consulting — to quote one of my consultant friends, “We’re essentially a PowerPoint factory” — the slide deck will continue to reign as the dominant information architecture. As College administrators press for “smart classrooms” and the integration of technology as a proxy for learning quality, relying on PowerPoint will continue to make us dumber. This problem is particularly salient at Dartmouth, where a student is likely to give countless mind-numbing PowerPoint presentations. For the love of God, please, please stop reducing everything to slides.