Sunday, August 29, 2004

Confessions of a former PowerPoint user

As I seem to get some hits to this site through a mention I got from Tim Burke in one of his posts, I thought I'd offer a quick response to something he said about PowerPoint. (Tim doesn't have comment capability on his site yet, but we're working on it.)

The main argument against PowerPoint, best made by Edward Tufte in "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint," and best illustrated by Peter Norvig's parody, is that its low resolution restricts presenters to an unacceptably low rate of information transfer. There are tons of other problems with PowerPoint, but nothing is so damning as restricting a presenter to showing minimal evidence and boiled-down ideas.

Since Tim so graciously said that I'd enlightened him, I figure I'd better finish the job. He said in his post:
"The PowerPoint thing is never going to work for humanities scholars. We don't have highly concretized knowledge that we can deliver in bullet points to an audience where the novelty or contribution of our work is going to be retained at all in that compressed form. Scientists and maybe some hard social scientists really can say, 'Ok, we found out something that we didn't know before, and here's the facts, in the most efficient form we can deliver them to you'. Humanists almost never can do the same."
I think he misestimates scientists and social scientists, because their work especially cannot be delivered well in bullet points, as Tufte has shown in his analysis of both shuttle disasters. Scientific evidence is hard to cram into the tiny screen real estate of a PowerPoint slide. All disciplines need to be able to express narrative, and PowerPoint is terrible at all but the simplest forms of narrative. If you really want to show an audience the most interesting, beautiful, and persuasive fruits of research, the most efficient form for doing so is probably paper.

For all my future presentations, my basic plan is to put important data and notes on handouts. My speech will be focused on conveying narrative. (I was a theater major in college. I can tell stories.) I have a hunch that I won't ever need to use PowerPoint again. There's an uplifting thought.


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