In defence of PowerPoint

25th July, 2011

I am about to do something rash, which is to disagree with Lucy Kellaway. Last week, the fearless observer of business follies went too far: she called for PowerPoint to be banned.

The prosecution’s argument is simple: many PowerPoint presentations are very bad. This is true but it hardly makes the case for a ban. Serviceable tools can produce awful results in the wrong hands, as anyone who has seen me put up shelves can attest. Banning the screwdriver is not the answer.

So it is with PowerPoint. It’s an unromantic, practical piece of kit. It is often used poorly. It is not the most elegant tool, but botched jobs must be blamed on the workman. Many of the bad presentations people deliver with the help of PowerPoint would have been bad presentations in any case. Would it have been better to hear the impromptu ramblings of a nervous speaker in total cognitive meltdown? Or to watch a piece of professionally produced but irrelevant film, in the dark? Many readers will remember corporate life before PowerPoint. It was no lost Eden.

PowerPoint is not the world’s most wonderful piece of software. The built-in templates have long been ugly, the clip-art tacky and the animations risible. As if determined to deliver on the name, it inserts bullet points into text with little provocation. It is harder than it should be simply to make all the letters line up. (I am still using PowerPoint 2003. By all means dismiss this column as the ranting of a corporate shill.)

Yet for all its flaws, PowerPoint performs two useful tasks well enough. It quickly allows one to compose speaking notes and to create slides showing images and graphs. The trouble starts when people confuse the two jobs.

There is nothing wrong with jotting down speaking notes as a memory aid. PowerPoint is as good a way of doing this as any, especially if you have handwriting like mine. For the vast majority of speakers, such speaking notes are preferable to the alternatives, including memorising, ad-libbing on the spot or writing the whole speech out and reading it in a wooden monotone.

The problem is that for some baffling reason, many speakers decide to project their speaking notes on to a wall rather than printing them out, postcard size, and sticking them on to 3×5 inch cards. I often sketch out my speeches with the help of PowerPoint. I just prefer to keep the slides to myself.

The second use of PowerPoint is to project visual aids on to a screen. This it does perfectly well – and the clichéd clip-art of yesteryear is now almost extinct. These days people “borrow” cartoons from Dilbert, or grab photos from the web. The effect is often pleasing enough.

It would be better if people learnt a bit about fonts, and better still if they learnt that by pressing “B” they could temporarily blank the screen. But one cannot have everything.

Lucy approvingly mentions a famous condemnation of PowerPoint by the brilliant information designer Edward Tufte. Professor Tufte attacks PowerPoint partly for its “relentless sequentiality, one damn slide after another” and partly for the asymmetric relationship between speaker and “followers”.

This is odd because Tufte does not acknowledge that he is really assaulting the idea of public speaking itself. What could be more relentlessly sequential than a speech? One damn word in front of another. If you hate the very idea of a speech, fine. But say so.

It would take little to improve greatly the quality of most people’s PowerPoint presentations – far less than it would take to improve the quality of corporate Newspeak. So why call for a ban?

The true problem is far more troubling. It is that in a corporate environment, we are asked to read prose by people who cannot write and watch performances given by people with neither the talent nor the training to perform. For some reason these amateurs are better paid than most writers and performers. There is something depressing about all this, but the blame cannot be pinned on PowerPoint.

I cannot finish without confronting the greatest sin in my version of PowerPoint: the “AutoContent” function, which sketches out a speech if you cannot do it yourself. AutoContent, The New Yorker once reported, was named as a joke, in “outright mockery of its target customers”. The very idea of the function is pernicious indeed but the real horror is that it was created to satisfy a demand.

Fortunately, that demand may have worked itself out, too: AutoContent was discontinued in 2007.

First published in the Financial Times, 25 July 2011

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