March 7, 2007, 8:49 pm
“PowerPoint gives the game away”
By Henry Woodbury
PowerPoint despair makes it to the Guardian Unlimited, in this essay by Jonathan Wolff:
What is it about PowerPoint? Perhaps it is the only thrill left to the jaded academic: not knowing whether the technology you are using will actually allow you to give your talk.
While Wolff mocks the dog-and-pony-show marketing of PowerPoint, he focuses on a larger point:
For those who prefer to project the idea that a talk is a unique event, a voyage of discovery that could go in any one of a number of directions, and may well go in all of them, PowerPoint gives the game away. As someone once said: “The art is hiding the art.” With PowerPoint, everything is on display. Elegantly effortless performance is hard enough as it is. PowerPoint makes it impossible.
As another well-known detractor points out, PowerPoint is relentlessly sequential, undermines a presenter’s ability to present rich data in context, and sets up “a speaker’s dominance over the audience.”
I doubt Edward Tufte is going to change his mind, but if Wolff ever watches Steve Jobs at work he might acknowledge that elegantly effortless performance with presentation software is possible.
Okay, so Jobs uses Keynote. But it’s not the software that makes the difference. It’s the approach.
We do a lot of work in PowerPoint. We have two fundamental strategies for creating elegant presentations. First, we approach the entire presentation as a single narrative or composition. Each slide is a storyboard that advances the theme. This lets us leverage PowerPoint’s sequential format to our advantage. We can set up suspense in one slide and resolve it in another. We can establish a motif, then evoke it again and again. We can use pattern and variation.
Second, we treat every slide as a potential visual explanation. Sometimes all you need is text, but with images you can represent concepts, show connections, and evoke emotion. Images also make presenters inherently more interesting. Instead of repeating bullet points on a screen (which people can read for themselves), the presenter speaks to that which the audience sees.
But Tufte and Wolff cannot be ignored. Sometimes the multimedia presentation is simply a bad choice of format. Let us give Wolff the last word. Referring to the power of the image (say, the portrait of a famous philosopher) he writes:
These days, of course, digital pictures of Descartes are cheaper than ten-a-penny, but I’m still unsure of the benefits of showing his bony face to the audience. They have already got me to look at. And if they are looking at me, rather than a screen, I can look back at them. And I can judge whether they have understood what I have just said, and, if not, have another go at making the point.
Tufte’s argument in “The Cognitive Style…” is that PowerPoint is geared toward selling an idea. If you’re using the tool to persuade clients to accept your pitch, then it can be extremely effective. Steve Jobs is selling when he uses Keynote. He doesn’t want you to evaluate conflicting data, or make your purchasing decisions based on a full cost/benefit analysis. The Apple Keynotes are a cerefully orchestrated infomercial, as are many sales and consulting presentations.
That’s very different from the Tufte view of explanation, which at it’s best is about fully understanding the evidence available to determine the truth.
PowerPoint is simultaneously terrible at many things, and ferociously good at a few things.
Posted by EB on March 7, 2007 at 10:09 pm
I would say Tufte’s antagonism to slide-presentation software has lept far beyond categorical distinctions (“Power corrupts. PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.”).
It’s absolutely correct that PowerPoint is misused (that’s why people hire us to do it) but in general I think Tufte has yet to reconcile his ideas with the limitations of the computer screen.
I recently attended one of his presentations and he proposed the following:
Give people a written scientific summary of your talk.
People read, you follow-up.
The data dump is high resolution.
The conversation is focused.
I like this approach a lot — I also like whiteboard presentations a lot (Wolff has some good comments on that in his essay) — but talking to printed material assumes certain kinds of information and a certain size of audience.
Posted by Henry Woodbury on March 8, 2007 at 10:36 am
At the seminar Tufte seemed to say, “Hand out all the info in advance and who cares if the audience ignores what you say, because, hey, at least they’re reading it!” (I’m paraphrasing, but it’s close).
Does this mean the best we can hope for is a room full of readers diligently ignoring the speaker? That’s more like study hall or a bad day at the library reading room. Hardly a compelling theory of multimedia learning.
Posted by Mac McBurney on April 16, 2007 at 7:59 pm