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PowerPoint Is Evil

This is the title of an apparently well-known essay of which I only just became aware, from Wired magazine in 2003, by Edward Tufte, professor emeritus of political science, computer science and statistics, and graphic design at Yale.

The subtitle is "Power Corrupts. PowerPoint Corrupts Absolutely."

"Particularly disturbing is the adoption of the PowerPoint cognitive style in our schools. Rather than learning to write a report using sentences, children are being taught how to formulate client pitches and infomercials. Elementary school PowerPoint exercises (as seen in teacher guides and in student work posted on the Internet) typically consist of 10 to 20 words and a piece of clip art on each slide in a presentation of three to six slides -a total of perhaps 80 words (15 seconds of silent reading) for a week of work. Students would be better off if the schools simply closed down on those days and everyone went to the Exploratorium or wrote an illustrated essay explaining something."

Now I think Tufte has a point, (a huge pointed pointy point) but I will raise a small defense of Powerpoint as a tool in developing a thorough writing style for children like my high-functioning autistic son, aged 13, who has large verbal challenges and is strongly visual-information oriented. This is an approach I've taken with him since he was about 9.

Typically, I make him read several encyclopaedia articles before getting on the web, we do a Google search together and find a few other information sites for him to read, and I get him to write down the dreaded bullet points in a text document as he reads the source material.

Then I get him to set those points up in a Powerpoint presentation, grouping the points together in logical progression 3 or 4 to a slide, and reward him for having done that work by allowing him to choose an illustration for each side (simple animations were allowed when he was 9 and 10, but are now strictly verboten). He loves this visual representation part of the assignment. Does it waste time? Sure, a little bit, but it keeps him engaged with the task.

Then, for the essay/speech he's been assigned, I tell him to write a paragraph expanding each bullet point on the Powerpoint slides.

The last, tricky part that he's still coming to grips with: make sure that the logical link between one paragraph and another is clear. If it's not, then a short linking paragraph needs to be written. This is the only point in the process where I'll actually help him put his sentences together (I do give him broad editorial advice at earlier stages, and I do sub-edit the final product for obvious howlers).

At the end of this process, he usually has a reasonably well put together essay or speech, at least for a 13 year old. It's certainly not the way I learnt to write essays, but it seems to work for him. Thoughts?

Hat-tip: An Anachronistic Mom, who hatessssess Powerpointsss, yessss she doesss.


Blue said...

I use a similar approach only in word for my boy. amusing ppt story tho'....

When my boy was 7 (yr3) the class was placed in groups to make a ppt presentation on 'The Magic Of...' most of the groups were doing naf magic of animals - with one animal & a fact about them to a slide, bit of slide animation, colour etc.

Small boy doesn't like groups & thought their ideas crap - so he took himself off to do his own presentation. What did he do?

A stop motion movie in ppt called The Magic of Skateboarding. It featured a stick figure on a skateboard who comes down a hill, up the other side, falls on his head and goes up to heaven (it was the halo that gave that away).

It did require rapid pressing of the page down key to work - but was pretty impressive.

Wish I knew how to code ppt into html :-)

Powerpoint can have its place - but I agree that it tends to be overused somewhat.

Notgruntled said...

My favorite example of what powerpoint does to language:

Ian said...

-but the example he uses is bullshit! He shows a table of cancer survival rates and labels it "GOOD", then an explosion of charts-n-graphics and labels it "BAD". The "BAD" certainly is "BAD", but the "GOOD" is even worse. In a seminar it's completely unreadable, the front row can barely make it out let alone the folks in the back. The charts he shows are hideous, yes, but at least a person in the back could have a chance of seeing a trend. Moreover, I've seen hundreds if not thousands of PowerPoint presentations dealing with exactly this -- cancer survival statistics -- and have never seen anything remotely like this example.

All this example shows is that (1) if you're determined to make something look awful, you can do it; and (2) the author has never seen a powerpoint presentation discussing cancer survival rates.

alice said...

It's become really fashionable to bash Powerpoint, and, indeed, there are good reasons to do so, in particular some of the assumptions Microsoft has made about cross-platform issues. But, as Ian implies, Tufte's criticisms are pure bullshit. In particular, he disingenuously ignores the distinction between oral and written presentation.

Every professional conference I've been to in which slides rather than handouts provide the illustrative matter provides guidelines about effective presentations. These guidelines concern such matters as minimum type size, how many major points to include per slide, contrasting colors (if color is used), and presence of extraneous material on a slide. There are compelling reasons for these guidelines, not the least of which is the temptation of many presenters to use pre-existing typescripts as the basis for their slides, despite the fact that 12 point Courier is absolutely unreadable when projected on a screen. Once presenters got over the "ooh, shiny" aspect of cross-fades and animations, it's generally the case that Powerpoint (and Keynote) based presentations are easier to follow.

The default templates generally start with a large enough font that even those sitting in the back of a large lecture hall will have no difficulty following a presentation. If the slide itself identifies major topics as bullet points, well, I don't see a problem with that, so long as the presenter amplifies these points in complete sentences, or even paragraphs. And judicious use of animations serves to focus an audience's attention on what the speaker is talking about, and not on what s/he will be talking about in a few minutes.

As a stand-alone document, a handout based on a Powerpoint presentation might deserve criticism such as Tufte's. But such handouts aren't necessarily stand-alone documents (if they are presented as such, that's the fault of the user, not of the tool they use!). Normally, they're adjuncts to oral presentations. Again, if those presentations are poorly thought out or even deliberately misleading, that's the fault of the user, not of the tool.

tigtog said...

On rereading, I wonder whether Tufte thought about the possibility/probability that the Powerpoint presentations he saw up at school websites were meant to accompany more expanded speeches. That's certainly the way it's been done at my kids' school, even without the way I use it to help the togster structure essays/speeches that aren't meant to be visually enhanced.

Maybe he's taking the curmudgeonly expectations of emeritii too much to heart.