Does PowerPoint Make You Stupid?
I remember a few years ago hearing about a study that claimed using Microsoft PowerPoint makes you dumb. On the basis that effective communication can either enhance or hinder quality improvement efforts, I decided to look back today and see a) where that information came from, and b) if it’s accurate. Given that over 400 million people used PowerPoint in 2003, the number of people who use it today (or other comparable presentation software, like OpenOffice) is probably even larger.
A December 14, 2003 article in the New York Times referred to a NASA report which examined the root causes of the Columbia disaster. Among other issues, PowerPoint was implicated:
”It is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation,” the [NASA] board [reviewing the project] sternly noted.
My advice would be for senior managers preparing these presentations to communicate more deliberately, in words like “THIS IS A LIFE-THREATENING CONDITION!! IMMEDIATE ACTION REQUIRED!!” Unfortunately, that might be perceived as “too easy” or alternatively, the senior managers might not have wanted to admit a problem for fear that they would lose their funding. In any case, respect for human life should come above all, and should certainly be a reason for bare, clear communication – regardless of whether the message is delivered by PowerPoint, in person, or as part of a 40-lb., 500-page treatise.
The same New York Times article references a brochure by Edward Tufte, a well-regarded information theorist who has written a book on effective data visualization and gives seminars across the country on that subject. You can get his brochure, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, at AmazonAccording to the New York Times:
Ultimately, Tufte concluded, PowerPoint is infused with ”an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.”
I would think that the burden of communication is on the communicator. There are many times where we only have a few minutes or an hour to convey a complex message, and for this, PowerPoint can be effective. However, if there’s a message that cannot be conveyed in simple terms, it’s up to the communicator to say so, and in really simple language, e.g. “this is a grave concern, and you need to review the complete report, now!” Easier said than done, I know.
But a far more complete review of the Tufte brochure at http://contactsheet.org notes that Tufte specifically argues against this position, noting that communicators are just victims of the product’s lack of user-centered design. Is the criticism of PowerPoint accurate? Possibly – I didn’t read the in-depth study so I don’t have a reason to believe or disbelieve the causal link between PowerPoint and stupidity. However, the recommendation ignores one critical element: that if the material is indeed comprehensively described in a much larger memo, people may or may not read and comprehend it.
However, let’s say you’re a patient in the hospital facing a life or death diagnosis, and a team of physicians is charged with solving your mystery. Do you want them making a decision based on the PowerPoint version of your case, or on all 800 pages of your medical history? Personally, I’d vote for the latter. But I would also insist that the medical team be given appropriate time to review, internalize, and reflect on the information before making a decision. This is a step that unfortunately has become a luxury in many organizations! Bottom line – the burden still remains with the communicator for now.
Buss (2006) doesn’t argue with the premise, and just writes about ways to use PowerPoint effectively. His article provides five tips from a professor in the Graduate School of Business at SUNY Albany. Starting with the premise that PowerPoint is ubiquitous in training sessions and presentations, the author first recommends that we subvert the linear “title and text” format that everyone is accustomed to because it does not capture peoples’ attention. Though this point is a sweeping generalization that is not substantiated, one opinion of the author is to remedy the situation by “switch[ing] the display order of the presentation. Present supporting data with points on the first slide and show the data and draw the conclusions on the next.” He also suggests that PowerPoint first be used to outline a message, and then a report should be written to expound upon the details, rather than the other way around. Buss also recommends to keep the information per slide short (though he does not suggest a “good” length for training slides), and provides the clichéd guidance that one should not merely read out his or her slides. The best advice is given in the author’s fifth point, where he recognizes that the presentation begins well before you start talking, and ends until your meeting is over. He suggests that the presenter mix with the audience to get a sense of their needs, and target those needs in the spoken presentation.
A related article, discussing Talking Heads vocalist David Byrne’s view of PowerPoint as art, is also entertaining.
Buss, W.C. (2006). Stop death by Powerpoint. Training & Development, March 2006, p. 20-21.