Dede & I have often ranted amoungst ourselves about how corporate America has been infested with a “PowerPoint culture,” so when I saw Brad Fitzpatrick & Kit Pirillo’s recent bLaugh cartoon “Powerpud” this morning, it really struck a chord with me.
I’m no great orator but I had enough college speech courses to know that the best presentations are those where there’s a sense of conversation or connection between speaker and the audience. Conversely, PowerPoint presentations are nearly always mind-numbing, bullet-pointed bureaucratese filled with buzzwords, abstract factoids, and corporate-speak that completely sucks the life out of almost any topic.
PowerPoint even features a built-in presentation checker that will tell you whether your slides are too wordy — lest you run out of screen space for those all-important whiz-bang animations, splashy clip-art, bold topic headings, and neat rows of bullet-points. The PowerPoint culture turbocharges the notion of form over content, substituting fluff for substance with the easy click of a mouse. PowerPoint presentations shift the focus from content, discussion, or effective communication to that of tedious but flashy eye candy.
Maybe even worse, PowerPoint presentations can easily and subtly mask bad news with cheerfully-colored charts and graphs, giving, as Sun Microsystems’ John Gage sums it up, “…a persuasive sheen of authenticity that can cover a complete lack of honesty.”
And there’s even a word for this: PowerPointlessness.
Sadly, the PowerPoint culture reaches way beyond corporate America — it’s infiltrating the schoolhouse too! A New York Times article from 2001 noted that PowerPoint has also invaded the classroom — even at the Kindergarten level — which kinda brings back to mind my previous concerns about pushing technology on children too early.
It seems that many teachers are making the false assumption that forcing students to use PowerPoint to create presentations will spawn excellent communication skills and creativity, yet we’ve seen undeniably clear evidence to the contrary in the corporate world. It’s far more likely that students will simply become fixated on fonts, formats, & fluff and fail to think about the sentences that those snazzy bullet-points are supposed to represent.
You have to wonder — is PowerPoint’s cookie-cutter, bullet-point mindset partly responsible for, or just another indicator of, how writing in complete and compelling sentences has become such a struggle for so many people. Chicken? Egg?
Maybe this is just another sign of our changing times, but I’m very nostalgic for the “old days” when people used complete sentences, sometimes even paragraphs, to convey thoughts. Words, sentences, ideas… now that’s stuff to chew on! Bullet-points aren’t thinking points or information to be considered — they’re just disposable dollops of data, the intellectual equivalent of just so many Chicken McNuggets.
For a funny example of the soul-sapping essence of the PowerPoint culture, check out Peter Norvig’s PowerPoint Presentation version of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Okay, to be fair, PowerPoint isn’t the devil. It’s just a tool and it doesn’t tell you how to write. It does, however, foster lax communication skills and offers no incentive to become a more proficient presenter. PowerPoint is a radical oversimplifier, guiding its users down a predetermined & simplistic path that dilutes the intended message. And it provides an easy crutch — a convenient script that can be effortlessly recited, line by line.
So, what to do? Well, for starters, PowerPoint slides should be used as cue cards instead, incorporating a key word or phrase from each into your explanation of the larger point being illustrated. Remember that PowerPoint is a visual aid — a subset of your verbal presentation — to highlight key points, clarify complex concepts, and help organize the theme. The audience is there to listen to your insight, not to be read to.
To paraphrase Fastcompany.com’s Heath Row, if you need PowerPoint to get your message across, maybe you’re sending the wrong message.