PowerPoint is making us dumber and damaging our businesses

Yes, PowerPoint sucks. Here’s why, plus some suggestions about how to fix the problem.

Imagine a widely used and expensive prescription drug that promised to make us beautiful but didn’t. Instead the drug had frequent, serious side effects: It induced stupidity, turned everyone into bores, wasted time, and degraded the quality and credibility of communication. These side effects would rightly lead to a worldwide product recall. – Edward Tufte

There was a wonderful moment in season three of My Name is Earl, where they visited the Camdenites (a spoof of the Amish). Earl had sinned against the Camdenites back before he discovered karma and was trying to find a way of making amends.

Earl: We could buy you a pitchfork, so you could shovel horse food like a normal person.

Camdenite: We don’t use pitchforks. They are the tool of the Devil. Although I tried one once, and it was about a thousand times easier.

Using a shovel instead of a pitchfork to handle hay – that’s how I feel when I use Microsoft PowerPoint.

I don’t know how you feel about PowerPoint. If you walk the land and draw breath odds are pretty good you’ve encountered it, though, and if you earn your living in the business world you, like me, probably know far more about it than you ever wanted.

Dr. Edward Tufte, a professor emeritus at Yale, has written extensively on design and the presentation of information. Perhaps his most famous piece is an essay entitled “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint,” and – spoiler alert – he doesn’t care for it. I recommend that article for its depth of analysis (and the way it relates the illustrative case of NASA’s landmark Challenger screw-up), and if you’d like a quicker (and free) intro to his position have a look at this 2003 article in WiReD.

I won’t try to distill what is ultimately a complex argument into a pithy paragraph (you know, the way too many American business managers reduce vital complexity to a few bullet points on a PPT slide each day). I’ll simply note that he explains how the tool is mismatched – in the Challenger case, fatally so – to the tasks to which it is frequently applied. PowerPoint is designed as a presentation aid – sort of like a higher-tech overhead projector – and it’s best employed, if you’re going to employ it at all, to signpost the discussion and present certain kinds of low-information visual supplements.

I doubt that this is how it’s actually used in more than a percent of the thousands of cases a day where it is put into play in business (or technical, or even academic) environments. Some presenters commit death-by-PowerPoint, packing slides with huge clumps of text. And then, the gods help us, they read it out loud. Some of our more clever colleagues make ample use of what Tufte calls “chartjunk” – visually stimulating, but informationally void charts and graphics. Important details are omitted, formatting conventions demand that less information is presented so as to seem more important, and if ever the world has seen a tool that insists function follows form, this is it.

In a nutshell, PPT is a powerful weapon in the war on thinking, communication and understanding. It levels information of varying importance and it fetishizes the summary, substituting it for the thing being summarized. While summaries are useful, disaster awaits those who dispense with the detail and rely on them exclusively.

I use PowerPoint all the time, of course, and it has its utility when deployed properly. As I suggest above, though, this doesn’t happen often. In most instances, it is put into service doing things for which it wasn’t designed and that it doesn’t do well.

  • The Gettysburg Address Powerpoint

Let me offer a couple of examples from my own experience. Some years back I did a project for a large telecommunications company. We were brought in to examine some problems they were having along several points of customer interaction. This included everything from retail store transactions and customer service center calls to confusing billing and subpar product offerings. In the course of the project we found much of what we had been told to expect. But we also uncovered another issue – really, it was THE issue. All the other problems were merely symptoms stemming from this underlying disease.

Client: Hey doc, I’m a little light light-headed and I’m feeling some pain in my leg. Any idea what it might be?

Me: Yes, I see your problem. You appear to be bleeding out from a gunshot wound in your thigh.

What I produced was arguably the best analysis of my career. It was, as you’d expect of a professional consultant, delivered in a thoughtful, well-evidenced report using Microsoft Word.

No, no, no, I was told. “We communicate with PowerPoint around here.” Direct quote. But, the report is really important, I said. “Nobody reads reports around here. We don’t have time.”

Let me get this straight. You don’t have 20 minutes to read a report that will help you stop hemorrhaging customers and will save you countless millions of dollars? That’s in the shareholder interest … how, exactly? (No, I didn’t say this out loud, but if I’d thought it any louder they could have heard it anyway.)

They shooed me away to revise, so I came back with what they asked for: I transformed a clear, concise Word file into a PowerPoint deck. 73 slides. And a decade later the company still didn’t seem to have identified and addressed the sucking gunshot wound I had tried to tell them about. I’m not sure I have even been paid so well to go back and redo something, only this time to do it poorly.

PowerPoint wasn’t the only obstacle in this case, but it was a significant contributor. Just as language shapes thought by providing the linguistic tools we need to formulate and share advanced concepts, so also is communication dependent on the available media. The medium is the message, noted McLuhan, and the simple fact is that any mode of communication has an inherent nature, built in strengths and weaknesses. Computer applications are constructed for particular purposes and as a rule you’re better off matching tool with task. Need to generate a lot of text? Your best bet is a word processor. Trying to manage a company’s complex finances? You’re going to want a spreadsheet. Image processing? Give Photoshop a look (and maybe Lightroom, Photomatix or the Nik suite, depending on what, specifically, you need to accomplish).

You probably could use Word to manage your finances. If you’re clever and resourceful enough at end-running things you could probably use Photoshop for desktop publishing, but that would be an extremely inefficient ways of going about it. And sure, you can use PowerPoint instead of Word for reports. You can also plow the back 40 with a bicycle, in theory, but there might be a better way. (Don’t laugh. I once worked for a company where our genius MBA boss decided that we should use the development group’s bug-tracking system as a project management platform.)

My company is currently evaluating how we do our client reporting. It’s sort of an ongoing subject of discussion and has been since before I arrived, but having just completed my first full project cycle I’m now pushing harder than ever at the process.

Our primary tool for content strategy projects is PowerPoint. We employ it for:

  • Concepting, development and collaboration (workspace, in other words)
  • Information architecture (IA) development
  • Web page prototyping and wireframing
  • Presentation of the deliverable
  • The deliverable itself

Now, understand – of these five tasks, PowerPoint was designed only for presentation, so when we use it for the other four we’re working … ummm … sub-optimally. We’re making do, we’re work-arounding, and the gods know I’m the king of the workaround. If you’re smart and skilled you can usually arrive at a quality product. For instance, I think my project collaborator’s IA slides and wireframes got the message across in ways that our client can put to good use.

But even when we get to a good place, we’re probably wasting a lot of time and energy doing it the hard way. For instance:

  • Our thinking is constrained by the context and design of the PPT slide, which inherently discourages longer-form explorations and demands that we conceive and execute in summaries and surface-level concepts.
  • There are tools that are vastly superior to PPT when it comes to developing IA and page mockups. Microsoft Visio, for example, integrates nicely with Microsoft Office applications but it’s expensive; Omnigraffle is a great tool, but it doesn’t output to a format that allows flexibility and editing once it’s dumped into PowerPoint. That is, you create your design and it exports to an image file. If you need to edit that image, you have to go back to Omnigraffle, make the changes there, then output another image. If the change is a simple case of moving a node to the next column over, it would be nice if you could simply drag and realign.
  • While PPT can be useful in presenting a report, it’s never going to be a good option for housing the report itself – this is simply not what it was built for, any more than Word is an acceptable alternative to Excel. Feel free to resort to Tufte’s WiReD story above if the reasons are still not clear.

Reliance on PPT as both the deliverable and the presentation also has an interesting effect I hadn’t thought about before our debriefing the other day. In short, it exerts pressure on us to cram everything in to a packed two-hour call. If the deliverable were in a more traditional report form which they had been given a day or two in advance, the two hour call could be devoted to in-depth examination of the key details and the client could consider the remaining elements at their convenience. I could refer to the chart on page 13 and we could spend our time focusing on the key points instead of feeling compelled to cover every point in the presentation.

I’m a good presenter, but you can’t help but feel so pressured if you’re consciously aware of PowerPoint’s fundamentally shallow, vaguely evil nature. You know you can’t trust the deliverable to communicate effectively once the client leaves with it, so you wind up shoving the firehose down their throats.

No, it isn’t always that bad, but this is the essential nature of the beast. Even if we plug our ears and lash ourselves to the mast it’s nonetheless sirening away, doing its dead-level best to seduce us onto the rocks.

We don’t continue using PowerPoint because we’re dumb or because we’re bad people. My team is populated by some very smart pros who are committed to doing everything possible to help our clients and we do things the way we do for specific, tangible (if not necessarily satisfying) reasons.

First, when in Rome. PowerPoint has become the standard expectation in the business world, and if it’s what all your clients are used to and comfortable with and perhaps even adamant about, you do it.

Second, it accommodates visuals. Tufte’s analysis explains that PPT favors low-information, low-value visuals, but much of what contemporary companies do relies on images – charts, tables, graphics – to make a point. If we’re careful to work within the constraints of the medium we can make headway. I had one slide on my client’s competitors in the presentation, and it was designed to illustrate that they needed to focus on the big dogs instead of their smaller peers when thinking about search engine optimization and online marketing. The slide distilled the landscape of over 2,000 players into a chart with just four. Maybe that was sufficient to get the point across, but a richly designed one-page graphic could have communicated a great deal more in the way of helpful information. For instance, we illustrate that the companies the client sees as competitors are relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but a richer visual could have added a sense for the range and scale of the competitors in between, given the client a fuller sense of their place in the food chain (and perhaps emphasizing the need to really get it right with search).

And third, to the best of our knowledge there simply isn’t a better integrated solution. If Visio were more affordable, or if Omnigraffle or Balsqmiq ported seamlessly into Office, that would be one problem handled. If Microsoft would build a wireframing tool into Office, that would solve another. And so on. We need a deliverable platform that enables collaboration, integrates presentation, prototyping and hierarchy development, and promotes thoughtful, detailed content that isn’t bound or dictated by the limitations of PowerPoint.

It would be also great if this platform were free. And easy to use.

That solution doesn’t seem to be before us, but there might still be ways businesses can enhance their work and communication processes. For starters, we should all stop using PowerPoint for tasks it wasn’t designed to handle. Period. And we should press our clients on the point, stressing that we do them a disservice when we employ inferior tools.

Next, company leaders, from small start-ups to Fortune 500s, need to insist on depth of thinking and focus on the critical details. “We don’t have time” isn’t an acceptable excuse because what you’re really saying is we don’t have time to do it properly. You’re saying we have full plates, we’re busy being busy, and it’s more important to half-ass 10 things than it is to do three right. If doing it right isn’t a priority in your company, then you have deeper problems than presentation software can solve.

Finally, don’t be afraid of going old school. It may be that the most important bit of data to consider can be expressed in a rich, one-page chart. It’s okay to walk in with copies of that chart and nothing else. If a team of execs and managers can’t communicate intelligently without a projector beaming slides on the wall, you don’t have a communication problem, you have a staffing problem.

I’m happy to be working in a company that’s aware of these issues and is willing to consider them seriously. We’re up against it, as I note above. I’m not sure some of the tools we need for our specific situation exist, and PowerPoint has become an assumption among many, if not most of the companies in America. It’s possible we could do exactly what I suggest we ought to do here, only to have them, as the client I describe earlier did, tell us to go back and cram it into a PPT deck.

All I can do is agitate for better processes with my company and clients and lobby, through professional networks and posts like this, for a reconsideration of how we communicate at work. There are better ways, but the fist step has to be an acknowledgement that we’ve been worshipping our technology’s weaknesses.

Remember, our tools work for us, not the other way around.

13 replies »

  1. Great piece – I wonder – what have you experienced in the use of audio enhanced PP – like with Camtasia or one of the other methods? If so, do they help – or only enhance the horror?

  2. A great piece, and I’m fully in agreement. I’ve had Tufte’s essay in my office for years, and I pass out copies to any student who lauds PP.

  3. The Camtasia route, Sam, merely means that the PP can be handed out to people who cleverly avoided the meeting, thereby making it nearly impossible to avoid the PP experience…

  4. Yes, this is a very good piece. I am fortunate that I am not required to use the PP very often. This is very quotable, and it rings true to me.

  5. Like this. Part of the problem may be that PP is designed to allow one person to present simple information in a linear sequence to a group who focus on the speaker and the screen rather than each other. A circulated report is designed to present complex information or argument that needs to be studied beforehand and discussed (if it is) face to face within a small group working together to evaluate it. Using either medium where the group relationships, the seating arrangements and the pre-meeting preparation do not all match will make for difficulties.

  6. No.

    I wish I had time to go through this, but your hatred of PPT is misplaced. It’s become so popular because it’s a more natural (and for most people) more effective means of communication than writing or talking extemporaneously. People have always prefered drawing to writing, and for good reason.

    (And “concepting?” seriously.)

    • How did I know you were going to balk at this one?

      I’m glad your experiences with it have been good, but I’m willing to bet that part of the reason is that you’re one of the few people who knows how to use it properly. I’m also willing to bet you have a low tolerance for those who do it poorly.

      As for concepting, we were speaking business. Be glad I didn’t drop “marketecture” on you.

  7. I read a book called Presentation Zen that talked about using strong pictures instead of words on the screen. I’ve incorporated some of that in my introducing freshmen to the library. I probably should develop some kind of assessment to see how much of it sticks.past the test.

    I go to plenty of conferences and see plenty of PP at those things, in addition to Prezi, which is flashier, but seems even more superficial.