PowerPoint is the wrong hammer

April 28, 2020

Out of an email discussion at work , came this, which I thought I’d share since I seem to have to repeat it on a semi-regular basis… indeed, we are doomed to re-learn most lessons.

ATMOAccording To My Opinion (warning: rant begins) there is no plausible “good” use-case for Power Point, but it has become so embedded in the technocracy that it’s extremely difficult to back out of the habit. One can use it to present good material, but that doesn’t make any use whatsoever of the features that make PowerPoint what it is. Better to use a different tool altogether, lest one be tempted by the “features”.

Peter Norvig is famous in the AI world, and is an astute observer… he was the NASA Ames Computational Sciences (now Intelligent Systems) divsion chief, then went to Google as Director of Research. He wrote a well-known critique of Power Point using the Gettysburg Address as a foil.

If you want the “deep dive” into it, he also tells the making-of story and later wrote a tidy article that I quite like. The final paragraph of that article is the nugget:

“Design your presentations and your meetings to take advantage of the people gathered there, not to bore them. If everyone has set their remarks in stone ahead of time (all using the same templates) then there is little room for the comments of one to build on another, or for a new idea to arise collaboratively from the meeting. Homogeneity is great for milk, but not for ideas. Use visual aids to convey visual information: photographs, charts, or diagrams. But do not use them to give the impression that the matter is solved, wrapped up in a few bullet points.”

Edward Tufte goes one step further, and (like Norvig, using NASA-based examples) takes a finer-grained approach to critiquing what’s intrinsically wrong with Power Point and the thinking it engenders.

It’s worth noting too, that a couple of highly successful corporations (well, each in their time, anyway) outright banned Power Point: Sun, and later Amazon. Plus Steve Jobs, and several well-regarded generals. There are some good articles out there explaining why.

But those thoughts, as creatively as they are expressed, are nothing new; Richard Feynman, in reviewing the Challenger disaster, pointed out how “bulletized thinking” contributed. It’s a lesson we seemingly have to re-learn on a regular basis.

PowerPoint is the wrong hammer - April 28, 2020 - chad r. frost