PowerPoint is the world’s most-fancied presentation software. This Microsoft property is most commonly known as a visual asset for live speakers and audiences.
PowerPoint is a weapon of mass distraction. It is not, as is widely supposed, an instrument informed by human qualities nor one designed for their enhancement. It’s a one-size-fits-few device that appears to encourage presenters to pop cartoons of angry cats in their presentations and then not bother to explain them.
A PowerPoint Presentation (PPP) may be a good fit for some communicators. Your reporter has yet to see evidence of this and continues to experience the thing as a sensory bombardment.
The thing deludes large numbers of people into the belief they have learned deeply and quickly while leaving them bitterly confused. Its appeal is best explained as: Jordan Peterson.
WHY IT MATTERS
The view that words plus pictures equals twice the learning is likely that upon which PowerPoint’s success rests. This idea began to take formal hold in US business when a bastardisation of Edgar Dale’s “Cone of Experience” diagram was circulated by a Mobil Oil employee in 1967.
Some variation of the nonsense has been repeated so many times over the years that it now passes at pedagogical science. The neoliberal-era university adores semi-concepts like “active learning” and the “flipped classroom” because, well, seeing, reading, hearing, writing AND doing? Why, that equals 270% retention and greater productivity!
The PPP can be recycled for years and administered by de-professionalised, outsourced and casualised tutors in universities. When asked, the majority of students say they like PowerPoint, and the customer is always right, even when said customer is actually getting more answers wrong.
Other examples of PowerPoint fans famously getting plenty of answers wrong can be found among the higher ranks of the United States Department of Defense, but I’m sure nothing terrible will ever result from that (at least, not without help from some other kind of cheesy visual prop).
Most famously, Yale’s Edward Tufte, whose 2003 pamphlet (PDF) spawned articles such as “PowerPoint Makes You Dumb” and helped make him a household name among design dorks and data visualisation dweebs.
Michael Kirk, too. The Peabody Award winner made a documentary about how mentioning a bloke’s name too many times in a single PowerPoint presentation basically created ISIS.
- PowerPoint was invented by Robert Gaskins, and was first released for the Apple Macintosh in 1987 before being acquired by Microsoft shortly thereafter. It was both Apple’s first venture capital investment and Microsoft’s first major acquisition.
- Keynote is Apple’s alternative to PowerPoint, by which we mean the pre-installed software that Mac users try exactly once before realising that their layout fonts get all screwed up when they save in PowerPoint format, which they have to, because that’s what is invariably installed on the computer attached to the projector.
- Prezi is like PowerPoint reimagined by The Naked Chef’s director of photography.
THE LAST WORD
The human capacity for sensory confusion was underestimated by the authors of PowerPoint. They seemed to forget that some of us do quite badly in that bit of an IQ test with all the shapes. I’m certain that a lot of folks ace the visual pattern recognition section. I’m also certain that some of us see an upside-down triangle on top of a ball and immediately yearn for the release of death.
Honestly, the thing is beyond me. This is not a tool to supercharge understanding in the human audience and confidence in the human speakers. It is a monster that feeds on my brain parts. It is not compatible with my ordinary human software. I see a pretty slide pop up and do not respond as business experts are convinced all persons universally must to visual material. A pretty slide does not trigger immediate insight in all. For many, the ability to process one auditory and one visual source of information is limited. In some, it triggers only the immediate understanding that we are easily confused by pretty slides.
What is that pie chart? A good idea that helps a clever chappie make his case? A technique of mind stimulation? A hint of the speaker’s hidden depth? No. It’s just humans embarrassed that the software to which they have committed for decades is not very good.
Gaskins, R (2012). Sweating Bullets: Notes about Inventing PowerPoint. San Francisco and London: Vinland Books.
Tufte, E R (2003). The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press. Revised 2006 edition available from https://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/powerpoint
Amare, N (2006). To Slideware or Not to Slideware: Students’ Experiences with PowerPoint vs. Lecture. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 36(3), 297–308.
Cornwell, L (2014). What Is the Impact of PowerPoint Lectures on Learning? A Brief Review of Research (PDF). Hagerstown Community College.
Undril, G & McMaster, F (2013). PowerPoint: Avoiding the Slide to Damnation (PDF). Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 19, 14–22.