Thursday, April 29, 2010

 

PowerPoint Hates Freedom

A few weeks ago, I aired out some thoughts on webinars and their seemingly endemic suckitude. This week, several alert readers directed me to this story in the New York Times about how PowerPoint is directly responsible for the failure to catch Bin Laden.

Okay, that may be a slight overstatement. But apparently the military is starting to complain openly that boiling everything down to what will fit on a slide often requires leaving out important information. When the truth of a situation is complicated -- which strikes me as a fair description of, say, Iraq -- oversimplification can turn a good idea into a disaster.

The shame of PowerPoint is that -- unlike webinars -- it doesn't have to suck. PowerPoint can make sense for information that ought to be visual, like maps or charts. It makes a world of sense in, say, art history or architecture classes.

But bullet points are not inherently visual. Text is not inherently visual. And treating text as picture doesn't do justice to either. (This cartoon that made its way around the web last month captures my sense of it pretty well.)

Imagine if Winston Churchill had used PowerPoint.

Where We Will Fight Them:

- beaches

- hills

- trenches

It loses something.

We all have our PowerPoint Pet Peeves. One of my worst is the Abstract Flow Chart. Flow charts make sense in very specific contexts, like if you're tracing the path of approvals that a purchase requisition has to follow. But when you have a chart that connects "community" to "ideals" to "resources," with circular arrows everywhere, well, someone needs a punch in the mouth. It's a mystifying exercise in what we used to call "reification" back in the 90's. It implies a false concreteness, and thereby misses the point. It substitutes pretty pictures for the hard work of specifying actual transitions between thoughts.

Then there's the paper. One of the great laugh-out-loud predictions of the tech crowd a few decades ago was the paperless office. As anyone who has been to an academic conference in the last ten years knows, audiences expect full printouts of PowerPoint presentations to be handed out. Interestingly, they don't expect transcripts of talks, whether scripted or off-the-cuff. So an audience of fifty that in prehistoric times might have consumed a collective ten pages of paper taking notes will now easily consume 300 pages of printouts per presentation. PowerPoint hates both trees and freedom.

(For the record, I agree with Molly Wood that the next great tech breakthrough should be a printer that actually works on a consistent basis. Let's just admit that we're gonna use paper, and spend a little time figuring out how to get the printer to stop sounding like a pair of copulating geese. But I digress.)

It also completely disrupts the relationship between speaker and audience. Unless the point of the talk is to examine a visual object, the speaker's focus should be directed at the audience, and vice versa. PowerPoints have a way of diverting attention, and therefore making it harder to develop a good rapport.

Lest I be mistaken for a Luddite, I'll point out that I'm making this argument on a (%&+^# blog. This isn't mossback antiquarianism masquerading as high principle. It's an objection to using a sophisticated tool in an unbelievably stupid way.

Wise and worldly readers, what are your PowerPoint Pet Peeves?

Comments:
Two major powerpoint pet peeves.

1. The "pretty trash" presentation. Visually, the presentation is impressive, but the content is garbage. The graduate student is busily praying that I don't notice.

2. The "I don't care how things look" approach, where endless text is crammed onto a few slides, making this prof with over 40 eyes EXTREMELY cranky.
 
Lincoln's Gettysburg address... in Powerpoint.
 
I have always hated PowerPoint presentations. My pet peeve is the person who just discovered how to make the text do fun things like slide in from the right or left, or spin into the frame like a newspaper in old movies. It's completely distracting, which I guess is the goal of the presenter, because usually there's not a lot of substance in the slides.
 
Last fall I attended a lecture by an apparently well-known scientist (I'm in the humanities, so I'm going with the description). Although I didn't like his lecture because some of it was, even to me, wrong or overly simplistic (all the disputes in the Middle East can be boiled down to water rights? Really?), the main reason I didn't like his lecture was because he didn't know how to use Powerpoint.

Picture, if you will, the lecturer reading from his Powerpoint slides, which are crammed full of text (some bulleted, some paragraph) in approximately 14pt font. Picture the slides being displayed on two medium-sized projector screens at the front of a largish conference/banquet room. Picture ~70 adults (most researchers themselves), including the 25-year-old yours truly, squinting to read ANYthing on the slides.

It was a mess.
 
Pet Peeve: reading powerpoint slides. Gaah!

While we're talking about the Pentagon, you might check out this short article in a Navy journal subtitled: "Bad writing isn't just poor form, it's a national security issue" at http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/story.asp?STORY_ID=1553. One of its conclusions: "A paragraph is not a powerpoint slide with extra words."
 
I actually like it when, during system setup, you can see that the speaker is going to use those crib notes on the side of the laptop screen and the title names a different place a few years ago.

I love knowing that the talk was recycled and the speaker still doesn't know it well enough to work without notes. Time to leave.

But I second the remark about flying text, particularly when the timed transition take about 10 times as long as anyone needs to read what is there and hear it read out loud.

PS -
Time for a reprise of "how to run a meeting", one of your greatest hits. Or make a note to run it in early August.
 
I was in the military a long time before Powerpoint was common. Let me tell you, bullet points were the preferred method of communication even then. They were just written on chalkboards. And don't forget the "definition" and "mission" sections, always at the beginning of the presentation. Powerpoint just suited all this very well. So I don't put much faith in the NYT article. This is nothing new.

PP can be a great tool. You can easily incorporate lots of different media in one presentation - images, sound, video, and text. That makes engaging students a little more straightforward, for me at least. Just don't read the slides verbatim!
 
the purpose of powerpoint is to aide in a presentation.

the problem is that powerpoint has become the presentation.

powerpoint is now a crutch, and it is heavily relied on people who don't know what they are talking about, and don't care enough to practice their material. for the most part, its use is an insult to the audience.

my pet peeves are:
- cramming a thousand words on a single slide so it is all jumbled together, and is unreadable
- Stupid animated gifs
- Crazy backgrounds that distract from the text
- When someone inevitably wants to refer to a previous slide, and then they have to exit the presentation, and navigate to the slide in powerpoint.
 
When the presenter says about a slide, "I know you can't read this, but...."
 
1. Ditto to whomever mentioned animated GIFs and those funky "transitions."

2. People who are only presenting 2-3 slides, yet still feel compelled to have an opening slide with an "agenda" or a list of "objectives." It's only 2-3 slides...do you think our attention spans are that short?

3. Horribly distracting background graphics. Usually it's the same few chosen over and over from the default Microsoft options.
 
I would never use PowerPoint. Now, Keynote, that's another matter.
 
It makes me crazy that as soon as I use powerpoint (or google docs presentations, actually), my students either stop taking notes or slavishly write down everything on the slide. When I get to the part of the class where we talk about religious art and architecture, AND THAT PART IS ON THE EXAM, and I use powerpoint to show them visual examples instead of just trying to explain, THEY ALL STOP TAKING NOTES on what I'm saying because there are no words on the slide. If there are words on the slide, they stop listening to me and only write the words on the slide.

They've been trained.
 
(Oh, and my point was going to be, they all bomb that part of the exam because powerpoint makes them either stop taking notes, or stop listening.)
 
I haven't been to a conference where people handed out paper copies of their slides in years. Nor would I dream of providing them. Must be a huge difference among fields?
 
Pet Peeves:
1. too much on a slide. If even your youngest faculty members are squinting, and telling the older ones they can't read it, there's a problem.
2. Reading the powerpoint. There's plenty of people who think this is a skill. Yes, reading is a skill. Reading to a room full of adults who hate you for doing this, that's just stupid.
3. That people use them at all. Just don't.
 
At a recent "paperless" conference I took all the powerpoint slides and downloaded them into my nook and took notes on them as the presentation progressed. The nook software didn't always present the slides as well as I would have liked (my kingdom for a zoom function) but for the most part I was able to follow along. I think e-book readers or ipads or the equivalent small computer are the missing link in making things really paperless.

As for the printer complaint, two words - laser printer. Ink jets suck for any application that doesn't require high resolution. When you calculate in the cost of cartridges, laser printers end up being cheaper than ink jets.
 
I don't attend that many conferences, so I mostly see PowerPoint in small-group trainings.

My biggest complaint is that it leads to entirely scripted/standardized speaking, which isn't great in small group situations. If I'm in a lecture hall with hundreds, I pretty much expect that I'm going to get the same speech as the next group of hundreds that they're training, but if there are less than 20 of us in the room, it makes sense to have the trainer check in frequently with the audience, spend more time on some things than originally planned and less on others. PowerPoint makes that very difficult since it's hard to draw/write additional things on a slide while lecturing and it encourages you to follow the bouncing ball of your prepared remarks. It's like the karaoke of public speaking. It also makes it less likely that there's a good place for the speaker to write/draw during comment times.

My preferred A/V setup currently is a digital projector with the ability to switch between a laptop and a document camera. The document camera (with a spiral notebook and a pencil) is for almost everything I want to lecture about, and the laptop is for when I need to show pictures, websites, or videos. For people with prepared lectures on PowerPoint, I think the ability to toggle to a document camera with a notepad and pencil when taking questions or going off on tangents would make for a much better presentation, too.

(Less you think I'm a total Luddite and that's why I prefer paper and pencil, I was the first kid in my class to start word-processing papers back in the 80s, well before it was ever required. I generally type faster than I write. I STILL find it better to lecture while handwriting rather than real-time-typing after having tried it both ways, just because it's so much easier to be non-linear on paper (drawing arrows back to an earlier thing, circling something, etc).)
 
"As anyone who has been to an academic conference in the last ten years knows, audiences expect full printouts of PowerPoint presentations to be handed out. Interestingly, they don't expect transcripts of talks, whether scripted or off-the-cuff."

There is a big difference between 10 years ago and now, I suspect. In the conferences I have attended in the last three years (no prior experience to compare to) no one handed out paper unless it was a miniature version of their poster or their business card/ brochure. One of our biggest conferences has even stopped giving out printed copies of the proceedings by default; instead they just hand you a CD. If you want a nice bound/printed copy it's $20. I'm guessing the CD is only included because they cost about $0.40; all that stuff is available for download to conference delegates, including during presentations thanks to ubiquitous wireless.

Disclaimer: I am in a science field with younger-than-average participants and heavy IT penetration.

I agree that powerpoint is often abused, but the problem is often not that what should have been a great presentation was turned into a cheesy slideshow. The problem is that what was a decent research paper has been turned into a crappy talk; the bullet-laden slides just illustrate the futility of treating a presentation of a paper as a verbal summary of it. The talk should be to *sell* the ideas, the paper to justify/explain/explore them.
 
I agree that powerpoint is often abused, but the problem is often not that what should have been a great presentation was turned into a cheesy slideshow. The problem is that what was a decent research paper has been turned into a crappy talk; the bullet-laden slides just illustrate the futility of treating a presentation of a paper as a verbal summary of it. The talk should be to *sell* the ideas, the paper to justify/explain/explore them.

Yep, yep, yep. I have seen three talks by people I had previously heard rail against Power Point. None used it, of course, and all three talks were still awful.
 
The Daily Show takes on PowerPoint in the military.
 
Last year I was on a jury where the prosecutor illustrated his closing arguments using PowerPoint, complete with animations. I know I was unable to focus on about half of his closing arguments because I was trying so hard not to laugh. The defense attorney then both (a) made fun of the prosecutor for using PowerPoint and (b) used old school poster boards filled with pasted on paper in too small type. Personally, I would have preferred a nice verbal only summation in both cases. I should not have to hold back when laughter at such clearly inappropriate illustration techniques when deciding someone's fate.
 
My pet peeve: people who have a peeve with PP. :)

When you see a bad PP talk, it's not PP's fault, it's the speaker's fault.

PP could be rightly blamed if it somehow induced bad talks, by making it easier to produce bad talks than good ones, but I think it does not do so. It does make it easier for a speaker to mask to themselves how bad a talk it is, but you could accuse tex of exactly the same sin on paper.

And I know you wouldn't do that...
 
My biggest PP peeve is that my 9th grade daughter regularly has to do them for class assignments, and has had to do them since 3rd grade. She just had to do one last week, because the teacher was 'tired of reading papers.' (This was in a honors history class, btw.) So, she had to dig up pictures to illustrate bullet points, rather than writing a paper that would have been able to explore the topic in more depth.
 
Thumbs up on the "let me read my slide to you" peeve. (Look, I think we can all assume the audience is literate.)

One I haven't seen mentioned yet: color choice. In my field, most people avoid the standard Microsoft templates, and use very plain formats. (We show lots of microscopic images, complex diagrams, etc, which are dressy enough on their own.) For some reason, a few people use incredibly painful color combinations: bright red text on a bright blue background, or screaming hot pink for emphasis. Nnng.
 
One more pet peeve to mention: the superfluous use of PP for something that really doesn't translate well to audio-visual media. I fancy that I use it well, because I use it as an aid to the talk, rather than making it serve as the talk altogether. But my research is intrinsically audio-visual; talking about music and music videos without showing or playing anything would short-change my audience.

When someone is giving a talk on abstract theory, or on research that requires complex elucidation of ideas and experiences, PP is far more likely to suck the life out of the topic. Within my own department, most people seem to understand this; in my discipline's annual meeting, I'm afraid it's a different story.
 
I love PP. But then, I average 3 text-only slides per presentation; the rest are maps and other illustrations, and the "text" isn't written on the slides -- it's spoken. But then I speak geology, a very image-intensive subject.

I've also coined Karen's Law, one I strive to avoid invoking: in any powerpoint presentation, at least one slide will have text too small to read. It seems to apply about 80% of the time. AAAAGGGGHHHH!
 
Other than the pet peeves already mentioned, what I hate most is waaaaay too many slides. I treat PP slides like the real, old-fashioned kind: calculate a minimum of 1 minute each. 15 minute talk? 45 slides? Just pressing "next" will take up pretty much all your time.
 
Two comments made here sum it for me:

okie.floyd said:

"the purpose of powerpoint is to aide in a presentation.

the problem is that powerpoint has become the presentation.


and Anonymous at 9:42 said:

"My pet peeve: people who have a peeve with PP. :)

When you see a bad PP talk, it's not PP's fault, it's the speaker's fault."


Amen to both.
 
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