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March 28, 2004

  • Why PowerPoint Will Destroy Us All
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    If there is one event I have to be dragged kicking and screaming to attend, the professional development seminar has to be it. Aside from the opportunity to see a lot of attractive professional women together in one place, and the occasional nifty premium, this experience in mind-numbing tedium has little to offer me. This week I had to attend one such event, and, to my astonishment, it was actually very good. The speaker was passionate, thoughtful, and very intelligent. There was much said in the seminar that was genuinely thought-provoking.

    Better than all of that, the speaker knew how to use PowerPoint. She gave her talk in parallel with the slides—what she said was the most important thing going on. The PowerPoint was, essentially, a prop to reinforce the most vital information as she spoke. It was thoroughly engaging. 

    If only there were more conference speakers like her in the world.

    It would be no great surprise for me to say that one day the Microsoft corporation will have much to answer for in terms of their business practices and their software. But to my mind, the thing they have to answer for the most is the debasement of human discourse that PowerPoint has wrought.

    Let me put it another way:

    • People now only think in bullet points
    • These stupid short slides have sucked all the intelligence out of normal human interaction
    • Everything is reduced to its most banal core
    • People, as a result, become banal speakers parroting their bullet points

    If you don’t believe me, try attending any conference or seminar under the auspices of ‘professional development’. 95% of the jokers who get up in front of an LCD projector use PowerPoint not as, as it should be, a visual aid, but a crutch. The PowerPoint drives the presentation, and the speaker merely reads the bullet points—perhaps the occasional speaker blessed with a precocious intelligence might actually expand on what’s been said a little—and it leads to mind-numbing seminars with little useful information. All the subtleties of actual written (and spoken) rhetoric is drained from the content the moment it’s determined the PowerPoint presentation should drive what’s being said. And, to make matters worse, all they then give you are a print out of the slides as a handout.

    There was a time when I worked in Communications for a professional association of non-profit housing. There was one department that had a lot of information to get out to its constituents on the website and time and again, would simply put up .pdfs of PowerPoint presentations. When it came time to implement the redeveloped website I sat the department down and gave them two documents—a simple 350 word summary, and a PowerPoint presentation based on those 350 words. I then asked the simple question, ‘Which one gives the more useful information?’ The final score was Written Text: 5, Bullet Points: 0. Why? Because in boiling even 350 words down to bullet points, you lose context, you lose important subtleties, you lose coherence. This should hardly be a revelation—get your news off the ticker at the bottom of a TV screen and you get substantially less information than if you watch even a 45 second item about it—but it was to my colleagues that day.

    And yet, the PowerPoint mentality holds sway. It’s easier to write, it looks cool, and everyone gets some kind of a cocaine-like rush off of the high-level information whooshing at them.

    It’s bad enough that PowerPoint encourages sloppy, half-assed presentations. But the banalization of language caused by the prevalence of PowerPoint has spilled into many other areas. A couple of years ago, a committee I was on were asked to come up with a long-range plan for the church I attend. And so we worked hard and put together a 50 page document headed off with a mission statement. The mission statement was written in thoughtful, even poetic, prose appropriate for a parish that is often distinguished by the quality of its preaching. And yet, there were people on our committee who felt that it should be reduced to four bullet points at about 15 words each. That gave me cause for despair—if institutions who are supposed to be working to facilitate intelligent, thoughtful explorations of one’s life and spirituality have to adopt the banality of business-speak, what hope is there?

    In the end we compromised on that point…but the people we presented our plan to insisted that 50 pages written in plain English was too much, and could we reduce to some bullet points?

    The late Neal Postman posited twenty years ago in his book Amusing Ourselves To Death that television has irreversibly reduced people’s capacity to follow intelligent discourse. Political debates in the age of Lincoln took five or six hours, and now take under 90 minutes. If television has diminished our literacy, then the computer is here to finish off the job. Website writing ideally has to have 50% less content for easy scanning by users.

    PowerPoint is the icing on the cake though: reduce everything down to a bullet point and leave out the details. The problem with this is that god, so to speak, is often in the details, and so is the devil. Reducing everything to their most banal crux prevents us from ever finding either and intelligently deciding for ourselves which should be heard more. In this day and age, that worries me more and more. The second Iraqi war was justified with a PowerPoint-esque boiling down of fact:

    • Weapons of Mass Destruction
    • Sadaam is bad
    • Connection to Al-Queda

    Think about that the next time you see someone reach for the laptop and LCD projector at a seminar.


    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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