Death by bullet point: does Tim Harford's defence of PowerPoint stand up?

29 July 2011 , ,

I have rather a liking for bullet points. Sure, I’ve suffered near death by PowerPoint many times. But the anti-bullet point style of big photo and a few words can be done pretty badly too. It’s a tough call: too many bullet points or irrelevant photo and unreadable caption; which is worse?

I also have a liking for Tim Harford’s writing, so when I saw he had penned a piece in defence of PowerPoint I expected to be entertained and to end up agreeing.

On entertainmnent, he scores full marks. As for agreeing … well, half of his argument I do indeed agree with, which is that bad presenters will give bad presentations with or without PowerPoint, just as they did in the days before PowerPoint.

Although Tim Harford doesn’t quote Robert Gaskins, the inventor of PowerPoint, his views are very much in sympathy with what Gaskins said on the 20th anniversary of its invention:

Presentations were nothing new when PowerPoint appeared 20 years ago. Most complaints we hear about presentations today were current then, too: ambiguous and repetitive bullet points, speakers reading their slides, no proper audience handouts, and more. PowerPoint didn’t create any of these familiar ways to fall short.

The other half of his argument, however, I disagree with because PowerPoint’s user interface encourages bad habits at the expense of good.

As Tim says, one problem is that people confuse slides with speaking notes and yes, in theory, you can produce both separately in PowerPoint. But that’s not how its user interface steers you.

Open up a new presentation and by default you are not presented with slide and speaker notes windows side by side. Rather you get slide big and central and speaker notes tucked away. The design steers you towards ignoring the speaker notes feature rather than treating it as central to producing a good overall presentation.

It is even worse when it comes to handouts. Good handouts often do not duplicate the slides. So in an ideal world you want three linked documents: slides, notes, handouts. PowerPoint provides a few measley handout features but if you want handouts that are significantly different in places from your slides, it gets messy quickly.

And then there’s structure. Some people like to throw together thoughts and then structure them. Others prefer to come up with a structure and then fill in the thoughts. Whichever order you prefer, those two steps should come before starting to produce the slides. Yet in PowerPoint it is File / New Presentation and you are plunged straight into creating slides. Again, the design entices us into bad behaviour rather than encouraging good.

It is the same when it comes to the details, especially the ‘helpful’ feature added through the years whereby if you carry on typing more text on a slide PowerPoint shrinks the font and lets you carry on typing – rather than throwing its hand up in horror it makes easy as your wordcount tops 200 and the point size shrinks under 7.

There are plenty of examples of software which helps lead you away from temptation rather than towrads it. Email programs that force you to preview a bulk email before sending are a good example. But PowerPoint? Alas no.

Cross-posted from the MHP Communications blog.

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Max Atkinson
Max Atkinson

As explained in my books (http://amzn.to/iy1kzx), apart from the distractions to eye-contact between speaker and audience, tying to read and listen at the same time, etc., the modern presentation is dogged by a failure to understand that there's a fundamental difference between how much information you can get across in writing (a lot) compared with speaking (not much). Programs like PowerPoint lull people into believing (wrongly) that they can kill two birds with one stone and implicitly incite speakers to pack in far more information than audiences can ever hope to take in via the spoken word. I've added some comments along these lines to Tim Harford's post - reproduced here to save you and your readers the trouble of looking it up: There's nothing new about the problems with slide-dependent presentations, which go back to the days of overhead projectors. I've been training, coaching and writing on how to make more effective use of visual aids for nearly 30 years. My shortest piece on the subject was commissioned by the BBC website at http://bbc.in/o4rT to mark the 25th anniversary of PPt - and links to other blog posts on the topic can be found at http://bit.ly/qLd59J. There are more extended treatments of the pluses (yes, there are some) and minuses of PowerPoint in my books 'Lend Me Your Ears' and ‘Speechmaking & Presentation Made Easy’, a major aim of which was to show how people can liberate themselves from slide-dependency by harnessing the power of language, rhetoric, imagery, story-telling, etc. What too many people still don't get is that programs like PowerPoint implicitly encourage speakers to think that there's no difference between the written and spoken word - and therefore that presenters can safely inflict massive and painful amounts of information on their audiences. But, as I'm constantly pointing out, there are more words on one page (yes, 1 page) of a broadsheet newspaper than there are in a 25 minute broadcast radio or television news bulletin (with 30+ more newspaper pages of the main section followed by business, sports, travel, etc. etc. sections still to go). That's why, when it comes to presentations, speakers have to simplify their subject matter beyond the point at which they, as experts, feel comfortable. PowerPoint does have some benefits, but its recommended templates lull users into thinking that they can achieve the impossible with endless lists of bullet points - which they can't. Hence the widespread complaints about death from 1,000 slides, not to mention the hidden but rising cost of paying people to create and listen to boring presentations (my last estimate for the UK economy was that about £8 billion a year is going down the drain), for more on which, see 'How many corporate birds can you kill with one PowerPoint presentation?’ at http://bit.ly/aSySde.

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  1. Max Atkinson says:

    RT @markpack: Death by bullet point: does Harford's defence of Ppt stand up? http://bit.ly/pGq7KL <See my comments…

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