Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Dumbed down by PowerPoint

It’s twenty-five years since Microsoft acquired PowerPoint. In one-third of a lifetime the program has achieved virtual ubiquity, not just for business presentations and sales pitches but in public meetings, schools and colleges across the developed world. It’s a fair bet if you have sat in a classroom or meeting room anytime over the last quarter of a century you will have been PowerPointed; and then some.

I’m sure I’d find common ground with readers, elicit nods of recognition with an article entitled Bored silly by PowerPoint. Which of us has not peered past a turned shoulder in an imposture of attentiveness to a distant screen, our yawns politely stifled while a speaker (more likely male than female) works his way through every one of forty slides by reading aloud each of the myriad bullet points on each slide, breaking off only to say of a particularly crowded specimen, ‘Mmm, you probably won’t be able to read this...’ A too-familiar scene, but my argument is a wider one - that the way this Microsoft presentation tool is conventionally, almost universally deployed acts as a barrier to clear reasoning and expression, and actively inhibits the close, creative engagement that can help to spark, expand and develop our best thinking. In school or at work we are brain-dulled and dumbed down by PowerPoint.

One generic descriptive label for presentation equipment and software is speaker support: a telling phrase, its focus on the messenger rather than the message, much less the audience. Of course there can be genuine benefit for those who only sit and stare - it’s true that a striking illustration, a well-designed graphic, a significant quote may, judiciously selected, enhance enjoyment and understanding - but all too often the speaker’s PowerPoint pack is not there to support the presentation; it is the presentation.

What we generally see is an abridged form of autocue on slide. On slide after slide after slide in relentless sequence. Our speaker would probably prefer to have it all up there word for word, but that’s not the done thing with PowerPoint. It’s de rigueur to employ nouns without verbs, cut out conditionals, avoid pronouns (especially personal pronouns), chop and order everything into a hierarchy of bullet points. The effect is a flat placebo of a presentation, pretending potency but squeezed of content, reason and any trace of passion.

Imagine if Martin Luther King, getting to the crux of his I have a dream speech, turned his back on his audience and addressed them using PowerPoint, thus:

At least as a member of the audience you might have some of the gaps filled in by the speaker on the day (though a 2007 study by the University of New South Wales found that trying to attend to a speaker while simultaneously following a visual summary of the words leads to ‘cognitive overload’ and a consequent failure to do either). What’s worse is trying to make sense of handouts that are merely a print-out of the given presentation. Devoid of oral interpretation, meaning drains from the printed sheet. Yet surveys have shown that an audience is even less likely to focus properly on a presentation when they know they will be provided with a handout of the slides at the end.

Despite these shortcomings PowerPoint continues to be used with mind-boggling frequency – 30 million presentations per day according to Microsoft’s own estimate – and across an extraordinary range of subjects. To test the breadth of use, try typing any random concept you can conceive into a search engine and add the extension ppt. I just tried it with the phrase diabetic monkeys ppt and sure enough a PowerPoint slide show obligingly presented itself at the top of the search results. Why the enduring popularity of this mind-sapping software? I’d like to suggest some reasons as I continue my exploration of its deleterious effects.

First its use in schools, embedding early the notion of PowerPoint as the default mode of presentation. Teachers – often influenced by teaching guides set out in PowerPoint format – tend to be regular users. Pressed for time and conscious of copyright issues, many rely on standard Microsoft templates and reach too readily for the royalty-free images, so inventive opportunities are forsaken for cliché. Pupils are encouraged to present much of their own work in the same style, so what may traditionally have been reports written in full sentences and carefully structured in paragraphs, perhaps with hand-drawn charts or illustrations, are these days prepared and given like client pitches in the inelegant, anti-literate half-language of bullet points. Art is sacrificed for clip art.

For children and adults PowerPoint is the easy option. It obviates the need even to express a complete thought, still less develop an argument or guide a reader through possibly complex or subtle ideas with clarity and skill. Enough to dash down a few headers, fill under with some salient points – an outline sufficient to talk to. Trouble is, in avoiding the hard graft of deep thinking and writing, they avoid the deep learning too. They lose the richest opportunities for analysis, exposition, synthesis and, at best, revelation. As E M Forster wrote, ‘How can I know what I think until I see what I say?’

On a superficial level PowerPoint looks good, looks cool, and of course it’s slick to use. The presenter with the remote control has the room under control (if only because the audience is semi-comatose). The more polished the presentation the more authoritative it appears to be – and certainly the aspiring executive who can carry it off with a measure of pizzazz and conviction is often the one who will attract the notice of senior management and gain both kudos and promotion.

In this very coolness lurks the greatest danger. I use the term ‘danger’ advisedly because, as I’ll exemplify, there are circumstances in which the consequences can be life-threatening. By preferring form over content, sales pitch over objective analysis, by substituting condensed pellets for the meat of the argument, by creating an illusion of control and authority that stifles discussion and relegates the audience to passive recipients of here’s-some-I-made-earlier slices of preorganised information, without elaboration or deconstruction, the PowerPoint presenter can lead us to mistaken conclusions, shallow judgements, bad decisions.


In February 2003 the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. All seven crew members were lost. A tragic accident, yes, but an avoidable one according to post-disaster analysis by Professor Edward Tufte of Yale University.

A fortnight earlier, while the craft was in orbit, a short video sequence had shown NASA observers that something (it turned out to be a piece of foam debris) had hit the wing. To help senior officials assess the threat, Boeing Corporation executives converted their engineers’ investigations into a rapidly-assembled PowerPoint presentation of 28 slides on screen with summary printouts – a standard form of briefing. The devil (doubts, uncertainties, worries) was in the detail. Specific technical findings about the wing damage were buried in a confusing, multi-layered crowded slide. The highlighted, key bullet-pointed executive summary was generally upbeat about the problem. Top level officials missed the underlying messages. Drawn to the optimistic summary and reassured by the tone of the presenters, they concluded there was nothing really to worry about. A wrong decision not to intervene turned the undetected hole in the wing of the spacecraft into a two-week time bomb that triggered calamity.

Columbia Space Shuttle February 2003


This was a failure both of the presentation and the organisational framework within which it was delivered. In many corporate cultures – not least typically ‘macho’ environments such as the military, the space industry, engineering – there is a strict reporting hierarchy and an assumption, as information is passed up the line, that senior management is far too busy and important to be bothered with small details. Bosses have their eye on ‘the big picture’; they demand reports presented in hyper-condensed form so that they may review and pass judgement without having their valuable time wasted on minutiae. This is condition perfect for bog-standard PowerPoint – neatly ordered bullets with key words and phrases lined up for inspection (supporting information filtered out), a few charts with coloured bars or arrows interweaving between word bubbles to provide (illusory) one-page snapshots of the technically complex; all smartly presented electronically and with a slim sheaf of hard copy for later perusal (or more likely to be filed unread).

What’s missing from this picture is just about everything that vivifies learning and leads to genuine understanding: motivation, engagement, interaction, examination of evidence and counter-evidence; thinking aloud, questioning, discussing, opining, debating, arguing, reasoning, imagining, postulating; pulling strands together and reaching some sort of realisation, new awareness, consensus or resolution.

If, as seems probable, PowerPoint continues to hold sway as it has done for the last twenty-five years, don’t hold out for improvement. Oh, there will be technological advances no doubt – the PowerPoint of the future is sure to be even more impressive and glitzy, studded with apps and gizmos for the new world – but what they’ll add up to is the modern equivalent of smoke and mirrors, taking us further away from the opportunity to experience insights that can result from the deep thinking that accompanies considered writing, truths that can be revealed by discussion without distraction.

At its worst, a PowerPoint-supported talk is a conspiracy of pretence. The speaker pretends to communicate, and the audience pretends to listen. Nobody learns. The presentation may seem smart, it may look great, rather like a picture in a swish corporate brochure, and equally devoid of life. There may be words, words and more words spoken from the platform, but it’s one dumb show.


  1. Nice one!!!
    Will share one of my anecdotal with you.
    Last year was asked to present at one of those which have now become a blur events of "guess which template was used" and "oh look they found that button no one normally uses, to flick the slides" which was of course not helped by the beer I had consumed to steady my nerves before getting up on stage in front of so many who knew everything about everything, or so their slides implied and wondering when I would be discovered as a fraud who had no place there.

    However my cunning plan was to inject my Powerpoint presentation with copious amounts of video of my avatar and myself waffling on about how Powerpoint was originally meant as a stop gap towards finding better ways of interacting/passing on a message seeing as our visual cortex in conjunction with our brains worked at faster than slide speed, and would not be helped by some idiot droning on as they read what you could already see on said slides.

    I shall never know the outcome of that presentation as was in such a hurry to get back to watering hole before I was discovered to be a fraud. "grin"

  2. Been there - done that! I speak at genealogical conferences, and believe it or not, they sometimes REQUIRE powerpoint. My compromise is to find bright, compelling images to illustrate points. Humorous, if at all possible. I talk to the audience. When I flip a slide I always ask a question to engage the audience. For instance, I show a slide of a room filled with boxes, and ask "How many have a genealogy room that looks like this?"

    Thanks for the great article. I intend to share with every conference coordinator in my address book.

  3. Great comment, thanks Carolyn. Like you, I'm a props and interactive person. Written some interactive DVDs on the subject, now digested in a few mini-books in my 'Almost Free' series on Kindle. Thanks for sharing with your contacts - I appreciate that.

  4. Amen! David, you said very well.
    From a retired teacher who was force-fed tons of power point presentations.
    ZZZZZZ...uh... Zan Marie ; )

  5. Me too, Zan Marie. Of course, my point is also a wider one, that PowerPoint is not only boring, but creatively stultifying, and potentially dangerous in some situations, as shown.

  6. Bravo, David! Bravo! Honestly, give me a good ole' fashioned lecture anyday over PowerPoint, please. :)

  7. Provided the lecturer is up to scratch I agree, Jacqui. The direct style gives you a better opportunity to listen to the words without distractions - unless you're simultaneously checking your smartphone of course, but that's food for another article. :-)

  8. Really good article highlighting the zillions of PP presentations that numb and dumb audiences everywhere.

    However, I'd argue that it is not PowerPoint that is to blame, but rather the presenters themselves.

    For example, I attend a series of cultural evenings, where PowerPoint is used, but with a strict limit of twenty slides, each slide progressing automatically every 20 seconds, 5 minutes for each presenter. Usually about 10 passionate individuals get up and speak about something that really matters for them. It really works - people pay money to come to these events, and they're well attended. PP is the medium yes, but not the message. Very often their slides use little or no text, rather they are carefully chosen images that add to, enhance or magnify what the speaker is saying, rather than detract from it.

    It is amazing what people do within these limitations. As a creative person myself, I can vouch that limits and boundaries are often the making of a great work. I note you write radio plays, and I'd cite your discipline as a good example of creative excellence achieved within strict boundaries. I have always admired radio plays, and their writers, for this reason.

    I note the shuttle disaster, but any organisation cannot rely upon one presentation to make such a crucial decision. The PP presentation as you describe it, was simply representing a tragically flawed assessment of risk, arising from a systemic and organisational failure - not the first in NASAs history, either. I would not blame the tool, but rather the workmen in this example.

    But the thrust of what you are saying I do agree with, and I'd support your argument insofar as laziness is encouraged by a program like PowerPoint, but not that it is the cause of the laziness.

  9. Many thanks, Simon, for those acute observations. You counter-balance my argument beautifully. I think I'd pay for one of those cultural evenings you talk about too. It would be delightful to see a PowerPoint presentation that truly enhances rather than detracts from the speaker. That would be a rare occasion indeed and correspondingly valuable.