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PowerPoint and its place in the world

In Geek Alert, Thoughts on July 30, 2014 at 10:52 am

The knowledge management expert David Gurteen recently asked in his newsletter, whether PowerPoint was evil, or a strategic tool, based on a number of articles recently published on the subject. That prompted some thought on my side, especially as I have been collecting some articles on the subject for a while now and also keep thinking about effective ways of asymmetric face-to-face communication, both for private and professional reasons. Public speaking, visualization of ideas and concepts, new media &c are things that will keep people busy for a long time. And whoever calls the tune, the piper will get paid in the end 🙂 So here is the response to David’s article, as posted in his LinkedIn group:

I thought I should respond to the question asked in the last Gurteen newsletter regarding the evil or blessing of PowerPoint in modern business life. Lot has been said on how visual splendour covers intellectual void in modern presentations. My favourite on that subject is this article from the New York Times, dealing with the use of PowerPoint in the military (and I love the expression of the PowerPoint Ranger)

(http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/27/world/27powerpoint.html?_r=0).

But I think what makes a better point is this piece (again in German, what is it with these Germans and presentations?)

http://www.faz.net/aktuell/beruf-chance/arbeitswelt/wie-war-dein-tag-schatz/kolumne-gerber-spielt-mit-1491986.html

about a game politely called buzzword bingo.

To lament the quality of contemporary presentations, the slide decks rushing by at a speed that makes the pictures moving and the cognitive laziness of today’s students working only with the provided slide decks is maybe justified, but blaming it on the medium does not seem fair to me.

What was before (i.e. when I was in school and uni in the 80ies and 90ies)? Blackboards. Professor starts writing while talking into a microphone suspended from his neck, starting top left and ending bottom right, followed by a pause for wiping and starting over. More advanced presenter would use actual transparent slides, either photographic from a magazine, or as a blackboard replacement on an overhead projector. That is why slides are still called slide, although they don’t. Students would trade in scripts, i. e. write-ups either hand-written and photocopied or, where there were enlightened and technologically savvy student unions or professors, typed and printed.

How has PowerPoint changed that? It has made the blackboard faster by having the presentation laid out beforehand. It also has made the presentation more colourful that the average four colours of chalk. It has retained the capability of the slide projector to introduce photographic material. And it has improved the capability of the overhead projector to present animated content through overlays. Technically more refined, but more or less the same.

Now the question that really matters: does it improve the content? No! A thirty minute talk about Introduction to BS will be still the same. Cognitively, providing the slide deck to participants might encourage them not to take notes, which will negatively affect the retention of the contents. On the other hand, a clear, simple picture will massively improve the understanding of a concept. For more on that, see Dan Roam, The Back of a Napkin.

I think what matters is rhetorical training combined with the inside that PowerPoint is your slave (or minion, if you want to stick with the evil theme), not the other way round.

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