Does PowerPoint Make You Stupid?

We’ve alluded in the past to Edward Tufte’s screed against The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. To summarize, he argues that PowerPoint forces presenters to dumb down their arguments to bullet points, eliminating logical structure in favor of lists where everything carries the same weight, and to severely limit the amount of information the audience receives through any one chart or graph.

The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint was written in 2003. Last week The Wall Street Journal brought us news that Tufte’s criticisms have caught on—with a few. For example, T.X. Hammes argues in the Armed Forces Journal that PowerPoint has undermined the military’s whole decision-making culture:

Before PowerPoint, staffs prepared succinct two- or three-page summaries of key issues. The decision-maker would read a paper, have time to think it over and then convene a meeting with either the full staff or just the experts involved to discuss the key points of the paper. Of course, the staff involved in the discussion would also have read the paper and had time to prepare to discuss the issues. In contrast, today, a decision-maker sits through a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation followed by five minutes of discussion and then is expected to make a decision.

Hammes also echoes Tufte’s criticism that PowerPoint slides are often packed with too much information for the audience to absorb in the minute or so each is onscreen. Tufte blamed this effect for the Columbia space shuttle disaster of 2003, claiming that superiors failed to understand engineers’ warnings before the launch in part because of it. According to the Journal article, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board officially agreed with him. One shudders to think of the damage that could be done in the military.

José Bowen, a dean at Southern Methodist University, is also identified by the Journal as an anti-PowerPoint crusader. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Bowen encourages teachers to put their presentations online as podcasts, test students to make sure they watch them, and then devote class time to discussions of the material.

These efforts point in the same direction: productive discussions of complex problems are only really possible when people have had time to absorb and digest information. If organizations fail to allow for that, it’s an indictment of their management culture much more than it is of a piece of software. After all, Tufte has persuasively argued that poor graphic design in a slide-based presentation was responsible for the Challenger disaster in 1986, too—well before PowerPoint was in widespread use.

As Hammes puts it:

[PowerPoint] can be useful in situations it was designed to support — primarily, information briefs rather than decision briefs. For instance, it is an excellent vehicle for instructors. It provides a simple, effective way to share high-impact photos, charts, graphs, film clips and humor that illustrate a lecturer’s points. … Yet even in a classroom setting, it is not appropriate for developing a deep understanding of most subjects. For that, additional reading is required. There is a reason students cannot submit a thesis in PowerPoint format.

Just as we all still use QWERTY keyboards even though proponents of Dvorak have been arguing since the 1930s that we could all type faster with that key layout (convincingly or not, depending on which studies you read), we may be stuck with the imperfect PowerPoint for a good long while. But that doesn’t mean we have to be stuck with poor presentations or poor decisions. We can bring you advice on the presentations. The decisions are up to

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  1. By How to Disarm PowerPoint « powerpointy on November 7, 2011 at 3:13 pm

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