Thursday, August 20, 2009

PowerPoint at 25

Remember the Gettysburg Address PowerPoint? It's the satire of presentation software that distills Lincoln's eloquent call for reverence and transcendence into a mush of empty bullet points and meaningless bar graphs. Who would have guessed it, but the target of that satire, PowerPoint, turned 25 this August. I had no idea it's been one score and five years! I hope bean-man brought a cake.

In honor of this auspicious occasion Max Atkinson presents The Problem with PowerPoint, an article that lays out the most common complaints about this ubiquitous source of sleep-inducing talks. Helpfully, Atkinson formats his remarks in both text and PPT modes. In his critique you'll find old favorites: speakers who read slides verbatim, bullet- and text-laden slides, the droning advance of slide after slide, and the frustration of information overload (the slide into oblivion, one might say).

Me? I'd add one more item to Atkinson's list. PowerPoint is ugly. A handful of exceptions aside, many of its visual and organizational themes are garish or trite or plain boring. The presentations that result are rarely much better. That's one reason I'm a confirmed Keynote nerd. Apple's application just looks better. And good slides lead to good speeches, right?

Well, no.

Indeed, I agree with Atkinson's broader concern (one illustrated by my personal evangelism of Keynote, I must admit): Presentation software invites our emphasis of style style over substance, order over meaning. I can't count the hours I've spent tweaking a graphic or fiddling with a formatting issue, time better spent honing a complex argument or crafting a stronger claim. I've created some pretty cool talks with this software but I can't attest to the brilliance of the ideas I shared.

So why the seeming dependence on PowerPoint, Keynote, and the like? In my line of work it's considered old school -- frankly, ancient -- to simply read a lecture. What about visual-learners? How about chunking information into bite-sized nuggets? Who will speak to the MTV Generation? (Ooops, that's my generation; most of my students are well past that age). These are fair questions, and I don't intend to mock them.

But when I recently saw a Reed College professor read an hour-long lecture, after rewinding my instant recoil at her antediluvian structure I was impressed by the speech's inspiration to listen closely to words, to consider claims carefully and to think deeply about ideas. I was reminded of the work that goes into sharing the right idea, not merely the coolest font.

I'm not ready to abandon Keynote or its lesser cousins yet. Even after 25 years there's too much worthwhile stuff to be found in these tools. Of course maybe I'm just not sure that my words are worth being heard alone. Not yet, at least. Still, I yearn to write a lecture one day that is worth reading word for word. No bullet points. No drop-shadows. No animated transitions. One day I will present that speech. Now I need to earn that audience.

Read Atkinson's article: The Problem with PowerPoint

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