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Published: March 1, 2005

 
 

Point or Shoot

Then again, only an idiot would deliver a PowerPoint “speech” as opposed to a PowerPoint presentation. Both implicitly and explicitly, Professor Tufte argues that PowerPoint invites people to be idiots and that people mindlessly accept that invitation. He thinks most presenters would be better off circulating reasonably well-designed handouts than crafting more artful slides. You know the old saying: “Give a child a hammer and the world becomes a nail.” In Professor Tufte’s formulation, once you give a manager a laptop running PowerPoint, the world becomes a claustrophobic sequence of bullet-point builds featuring 14-point Palatino and Monaco typefaces.

PowerPoint is so corrupting, he contends, that it can lead even the most rigorously trained and highly educated knowledge workers astray. His critique of the slides created by NASA during the course of the Columbia shuttle disaster is simply chilling. Then again, as the exhaustive Gehman report on the Columbia mission so tragically affirmed, NASA’s problems and pathologies as an enterprise ran far deeper than its inability to create clear, crisp, and cogent presentations.

The pamphlet’s most memorable message is not PowerPoint’s siren song of destructive seduction, but the idea that presenters treat PowerPoint more as a medium for self-expression than as a medium to better connect with their audience. The line between self-expression and self-indulgence is infinitesimally small, and surely seven out of 10 PowerPoint presenters can’t help but cross it. While Professor Tufte never says so directly, the essential challenge is to turn PowerPoint into a tool that appeals as much to the audience as it does to the presenter.

That’s why 2x2s generally evoke a more favorable response than bullet-point builds. For one, they’re inherently more visual; for another, they figuratively invite viewers to project themselves into one of the quadrants on the screen. You don’t just read a 2x2; you locate yourself — or your idea or your business or your product — within the schema it provides.

But luring the audience into mapping itself onto the screen — as opposed to simply better understanding what’s onscreen — is not Professor Tufte’s design concern. To find a resource where these kinds of design interaction issues are regularly discussed, strategy+business readers should check out sociablemedia.com. Part blog, part Web newsletter, sociablemedia is the creation of Cliff Atkinson, a PowerPoint presentation consultant.

What Mr. Atkinson has done is symbolic of what might be called the “bizblog” genre of the Internet. Increasingly, sharp people are posting the conceptual counterpart of open source software on their Web sites: They are attempting to build an interactive online community around ideas. Mr. Atkinson’s site strives to create one for PowerPoint.

The bulk of the site is free, and it offers as tightly edited a package of good PowerPoint presentation advice as one is likely to find anywhere. Blissfully empty of the cant and cliché typically associated with one-man Web sites, sociablemedia is notable as much for Mr. Atkinson’s pithy interviews with presenters as for his own takes on PowerPoint’s role in corporate communications.

For example, Mr. Atkinson’s interview with Seth Godin — of Permission Marketing fame — about his snarky e-book on improving PowerPoint, called Really Bad PowerPoint (And How to Avoid It), challenges Ed Tufte’s design sensibility head on. Consider this exchange.

Atkinson: In Really Bad PowerPoint you wrote, “the reason we do presentations is to make a point, to sell one or more ideas”. In The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, Tufte complains of “an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch”. What role should persuasion play in a presentation?

Godin: What’s a sales pitch? Is church a sales pitch? What about trying to get the city council to approve your zoning variance? It seems to me that if you’re not wasting your time and mine, you’re here to get me to change my mind, to do something different. And that, my friend, is selling. If you’re not trying to persuade, why are you here?

 
 
 
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Corporate Rhetoric Resources:
Works mentioned in this review

  1. Alex Lowy and Phil Hood, The Power of the 2x2 Matrix: Using 2x2 Thinking to Solve Business Problems and Make Better Decisions (Jossey-Bass, 2004), 352 pages, $45.00
  2. Edward R. Tufte, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint (Graphics Press, 2003), 28 pages, $7.00
  3. Cliff Atkinson, Sociable Media, Click here.