Effect Measure

The scourge of PowerPoint

I’m currently at a meeting in Europe and listening to — really looking at — scientific papers. I say “looking at” because they all are using PowerPoint, the scourge of modern day lecturing.

Don’t get me wrong. I use PowerPoint, too. Everyone uses PowerPoint. It is so easy to make nice looking slides and modifying them at the last minute is also easy– I have been known to do it on the fly while sitting on a panel waiting to give my own paper, we are almost forced to use them. In fact if you have 35 mm slides these days you are likely out of luck as the meetings no longer provide 35 mm projectors routinely, if at all. But the ease of PowerPoint comes with a cost. The PowerPoint format changes not only how you present information but what you present.

There are a lot of benefits, of course. You can now include informative graphics like charts, formulas and tables whenever you want. You can even include movies, animation and sound clips without much trouble. This is all to the good. Well, maybe not all to the good.

I started thinking about this a few months ago while at an advisory committee meeting for the US Environmental Protection Agency. I have had to sit through more meetings where federal bureaucrats and scientists project PowerPoint presentations than any non=federal employee human being should be made to endure. The presentations are usually well constructed and chock full of information, but more often than not there is much information one would never present if there were no PowerPoint. Here’s an example.

A director of an important EPA Office gave a presentation about their research agenda that included a couple of the slides to say they didn’t just make it up in isolation but consulted with others, both in and out of the federal government. This is a valid point which I just made for him without a PowerPoint slide. But he had three slides on which were listed all the sister agencies in the federal government they met with, at which meeting and what dates and similarly for a bunch of other organizations and agencies. He read the names of each, although not the dates. There was was a lot of information, all right, and it drove home the point. They had met with a lot of people. But if he had not had the ability to put all that stuff easily on a PowerPoint slide he would have made the point in a more concise way or, better, waited for an appropriate question to mention it.

For quite a long time we have been studying a fairly large population exposed to contaminated water. We have been looking at various outcomes, including cancer. Cancer takes a long time to develop and we have been looking at these people since the late 1980s. Initially when we presented papers about our results we had to sit down with someone from the medical center’s educational media department and decide what to put on 35 mm slides and tell them how we wanted it designed (I usually opted for simple yellow letters on a blue background). They chose the font. It cost about $10 a slide and took a week. So I was careful about what I put on slides and I usually had no more than six or eight with information I though necessary but not easy to convey orally, usually tables or slides or which variables we were using (independent, dependent, co-variates). Sometimes we’d have a graph. Often we’d have a 35mm photo of a site.

Now when I lecture on this it isn’t unusual to have 60 or 70 slides (say for a 45 minute talk), and a great many are essentially bullet points which I am using as a teleprompter. I don’t have to write out my notes any more. I just read them from the PowerPoint slide, embellishing and amplifying as I go. It has made me extremely lazy.

The tendency to put up information you would never present without PowerPoint is just one way lecturing has been affected by the technology. It also encourages us to put up information in a particular way, often taking complex ideas and compressing them into a few “talking points.” We boil things down to bullet points. Worse, we start to think in bullet points.

A project director at the National Research Council told me recently that once she forbid any presenters to one of her panels to use PowerPoint and the quality of the presentations improved substantially. She had to stop it because the presenters complained. It’s so much easier to prepare a PowerPoint presentation than the usual oral presentation she finally bowed to pressure.

I remember vividly one meeting where I was on a panel consisting of three epidemiologists and a lawyer. The three epidemiologists went first, and we all did PowerPoint presentations. The lawyer went last. He had no PowerPoint presentation and began with a word of explanation. It’s not that we lawyers don’t believe a picture is worth a thousand words, he said. It’s just that usually lawyers prefer the thousand words.

Sometimes lawyers make a good point. And it’s not even a PowerPoint.


  1. #1 coturnix
    November 3, 2006

    I use bullet points if I am giving a guest-lecture in someone’s class where they frantically write down their notes (I do not use PPT routinely in teaching), but very few, if any, if I talk about my own research – I prefer to talk about the data/graphs on the slide and tend to have a fewer number of slides than most people do.

  2. #2 marc
    November 3, 2006

    Self-proclaimed “analytical graphic” expert Ed Tufte (http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/index) is waging his own personal crusade against this. One of the best presentations I’ve ever seen is Hans Rosling’s TedTalk: http://www.ted.com/tedtalks/tedtalksplayer.cfm?key=hans_rosling. I can’t tell if he’s actually using PowerPoint, but his presentation uses a lot of good methods. One of the biggest problems I see (as a federal employee who does have to sit through a lot of PowerPoint presentations), is people reading to their audience. People often want their presentation to serve 2 opposing functions–they want it to be a document people can take with them to read/refer to, and they want it to be a slideshow augmenting their talk. It’s better to split this up–give’em a copy of your whole paper or whatever, but don’t put all that into your slideshow (despite PowerPoint being structured in a way that encourages you to do this in the worst of ways).
    Stepping off my soapbox,
    One humble info graphics guy

  3. #3 PhysioProf
    November 3, 2006

    “I usually opted for simple yellow letters on a blue background.”

    My recollection is that this color scheme was imposed by the Polaroid slide-making system, and that you really had no choice. Do I recall correctly?

    In relation to Tufte and Powerpoint, there are some interesting discussions in the forum on his Web site that address the theory that the “bullet point-thinking” encouraged by Powerpoint actually played a very substantial role in the second space shuttle disaster.

  4. #4 orange
    November 3, 2006

    There’s another issue at work for powerpoint. In most settings I see powerpoints used–corporate speeches–the REAL purpose of the powerpoint is to provide the speaker with an ability to deliver the speech without doing any prep work. They are, in essence, electronic cue cards.

    I like the Tufte stuff. I have been trying to ween people off powerpoints, showing them how Steve Jobs, Al Gore, etc, have used them effectively. To no avail, of course.

  5. #5 jess
    November 3, 2006

    As a student with a learning disability that results in slower verbal processing, listening to wordy lectures without embellishment is difficult and I don’t always grasp everything. That said, I hate PowerPoint lectures because you’re right, it does make people lazy. At least you embellish and paraphrase what is already on the slide; too many people read directly off of the screen. The more the lecturer does this, the less I end up getting out of the presentation (perhaps paradoxically). I prefer slides that have animations or figures to demonstrate the concepts, especially when the experimental design is complicated.

    My thesis adviser discouraged us from creating presentations for our oral defenses, as he (and the rest of the dept) thought that we tended to focus our energy on the aesthetics of the presentation at the expense of the logic and ease. White boards work fine for most purposes anyway, at least for our batchelor-level theses.

  6. #6 LibraryLady
    November 3, 2006

    Dear Reveres, this is really off topic, and I apoligise. I have been following the outbreak of novovirus on the Mississippi Queen cruise boat that started on October 18. Are you going to discuss that incident? May I present a concise timeline of events here? I do not want to use more space than I should. I will abide by your decision.
    Thank You,
    Library Lady

  7. #7 Brad
    November 3, 2006

    Thank you for writing on this issue, Revere.

    I am regularly appauled at the blatant abuse of PowerPoint by the professors in my Master’s of Public Health program. I got my undergraduate degree in the twilight of the pre-powerpoint era, and I’ve seen the rapid decline in the quality of lectures since then.

    The most serious and widespread mistake I see is lecturers using PowerPoint as a crutch rather than as a tool. Powerpoint slides should enhance the content of an oral presentation, not merely echo it. If the lecturer needs lecture notes, (s)he should write lecture notes, not speak from his/her slides (PowerPoint even has a field to store the lecture notes that go with each slide).

    I apologize if I sound preachy, but this is a pet peeve of mine, and I’m glad I’m not the only one who has noticed it.

  8. #8 RPM
    November 3, 2006

    My goal when I make a powerpoint presentation is to have as few text only slides as possible. Motivations/objectives can be shown diagramatically; data should be presented in figures/graphs; and conclusions can be expressed as extentions to the diagrams showing motivations.

    In this sense, powerpoint is used to visually complement the information I am presenting verbally.

  9. #9 revere
    November 3, 2006

    Physio: I think I had a choice although frankly I can’t remember.

    All: I have spent two thirds of my academic career lecturing in the pre-.ppt era and I have no doubt my lectures were a lot better than they are now. PowerPoint has made me very lazy. I am using it as a teleprompter half the time. I never read the slides. I’m not that bad. I embellish on them, tell jokes, etc. I’m actually a pretty good lecturer according to my students. But I know .ppt has made me intellectually lazy and also pre-formatted my lectures in ways that I wouldn’t choose if I weren’t using it.

    LL: I likely won’t cover a norovirus outbreak. These things happen quite a lot. If and when there is some good scientific development with this very, very pesky and contagious bug I’ll cover it as I am interested in its epidemiology. But the outbreaks themselves are so common I wouldn’t cover it except as an excuse to discuss some science or another related issue. I am in Europe at the moment and it is very hard to blog while traveling (you may have noticed). I return to the states next week and maybe I’ll think about the larger issue of norwalk-like viruses, which are interesting.

  10. #10 RPM
    November 3, 2006

    Powerpoint is good for presenting data and schematics for a research talk (ie, at a meeting, at your department, at another department). In terms of lecturing in a course, chalk talk (or whiteboard) accompanied with overhead transparencies is far superior. Writing on a board ensures that you don’t get ahead of your students (as you are tempted to do with powerpoint). And if there is anything that can’t be drawn on a board in a reasonable amount of time, the overhead projector is there to rescue you — assuming you provide the students with any figures shown on the overhead as a handout.

  11. #11 revere
    November 3, 2006

    RPM: I agree with you completely. I used to write out my notes and then scrawl stuff on the blackboard just to slow myself down. I gave 3 hour lectures and usually talked too fast so it was necessary. But I’ve gotten lazy.

  12. #12 marquer
    November 3, 2006

    PowerPoint is a tool. One which is predominantly misused.

    I have seen a few superbly informative presentations built with it. And I have suffered through endless hours of confusing dreck.

    The first key issue here is that the persons using PowerPoint almost never have had any training in public presentation skills or information design. That has predictable consequences for the presentations they create and deliver.

    The second key issue is that the natural organizational tendency to muffle dissent and avoid controversy is amplified by the format of the stand-up presentation. The overwhelming majority of amateur presenters are nervous. The last thing they want is to say something which will provoke questions or challenges from their audience.

    I have met Roger Boisjoly, the engineer from Morton Thiokol who said to his bosses back in 1986, “If you launch Challenger below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the vehicle will be destroyed and the crew will die.”

    If that warning, in those words, had appeared on any of the PowerPoint briefings given to NASA by Thiokol management, I rather suspect that 51-L would not have launched under the conditions which it did.

  13. #13 epifreek
    November 4, 2006

    While I agree with many of your comments about powerpoint, it has been a godsend for people like me who have public speaking anxiety. Just knowing I have the information on the slides means everything to me. I don’t think it has made me lazy and I remember sitting through many extremely boring oral presentations before powerpoint came along. At least with powerpoint, the audience has something to look at that is probably more intersting than the speaker.

  14. #14 LibraryLady
    November 4, 2006

    Dear Revere: I understand that novovirus outbreaks are very common and not as dangerous to the general population as other viruses. I was mostly interested in this story as an examination of the public health sector’s response to this incident, especially the state boards of health, the CDC and FDA. Can we expect better of them in the case of a biological attack or H2H avian influenza? I would be glad to submit the timeline at a future date if you decide to dissect this particular story.
    Best Regards,
    Library Lady

  15. #15 revere
    November 4, 2006

    LL: Ah, I see. Since I am traveling and not connected continuously I haven’t been following the details enough to know if this is a good opportunity to discuss the issues you raise, which, as you obviously known, interest me too. I return later this next week and will look into it. Good suggestion.

  16. #16 kstrna
    November 4, 2006

    Good chalk lectures require a lot of skill. In grad school, a number of faculty members still gave them. They were horrible. Why? They did not know the basics of using a chalk board (this included senior faculty members). They would write something and talk into the chalkboard as they wrote. Half of them stood directly in front of what they were writing. The thing is it didn’t slow them down, they talked faster with chalk in their hands and became frantic. And trying to decipher what in the world they wrote, forget about it. The power point lectures were actually better. They forced the faculty to prepare their lectures ahead of time and enabled them to actually talk to us students rather than to the chalkboard. Also made it easier for them to update their notes. Power point is a great tool if you know how to use it. Most don’t know how to use it effectively.

  17. #17 Chris
    November 4, 2006

    My pet peeve? People who make their slides too wordy and then actually READ OFF OF THE SLIDES. Are you kidding me?! I think every professional scientist should have to take (or test out of) a course on how to give good presentations.

    I honestly believe that many people don’t realize that they’re doing it wrong or that there’s a better way. They don’t realize that you can’t show up with 80 slides for a 10-minute talk. They don’t realize that yellow text on a white background is a bad idea. They just don’t realize what complete asses they’re making of themselves.

  18. #18 Chad Orzel
    November 4, 2006

    Manual TrackBack: ping.

  19. #19 Tim Nutter
    November 4, 2006

    If you’re in Brussels and have a minute and would like a beer, email me your phone number where you’re staying.

  20. #20 John
    November 4, 2006

    Has anyone mentioned the website that explores the important question of what would the Gettysburg Address have been like if Abe Lincoln had used Powerpoint?


  21. #21 anon
    November 5, 2006

    I don’t like powerpoint.
    I don’t like .pdf
    I don’t like meetings.
    I don’t like windows.

    Just put it in plain text on a webpage.
    Computer-readable , compressable, storable ,
    compatible, searchable for keywords.
    Accessable from everywhere without traveling.
    Easy to combine,edit,insert,delete,encrypt,

  22. #22 Ana
    November 5, 2006

    I read somewhere that PP was created for business presentations, to quickly present what was needed, and stop struggle with slides, transparencies, keep the pace (!), etc. That is enough to make it unfit for lectures or science. Biz presentations are meant to sell, convince, impress – not to inform or analyse.

    In a lecture, a still (NO MOVING IMAGES) picture from time to time, of equipment, a setting, or a simple graph, all of which should be situated, explained, and commented on, is OK. The entity communicating is a PERSON, and that person is not just a conduit or canal for information that should pass from A (the machine) to B (the audience.)

    Lectures or scientific presentations are not TV shows, and not a printed paper; melding the different types takes great savvy and care.

    Tufte point out that bullet points may kill people:


    (the link at the top somewhere to tufte didn’t work for me)

  23. #23 revere
    November 5, 2006

    Thanks to all with your varied comments. I thought of one other thing that makes my .ppt lectures different than my old fashioned ones. The students/audience doesn’t look at me. They look at the screen. I lose the eye contact and the communication that goes on between lecturer and audience.

  24. #24 g510
    November 6, 2006

    A respected modern composer once said that music synthesizers have enabled a new generation of geniuses, and of dreckmeisters. Same case for powerpoint.

    BTW, the same problem occurs in military intelligence, and presumably in the civilian intel agencies. Analysts used to write reports and make oral presentations. Now they have to waste time coming up with “media.” The smartest ones, and the ones who have real information to present, do not like this one bit.

    Fact is, you don’t have to be lazy, and you don’t have to succumb to the easy way out or to bullet-point thinking. Write out the notes for a lecture, figure out where you need visual support, and then create the visual support you need and nothing more. Create a blank slide that’s nothing more than a black screen or some color that won’t cause damage to the projector if it’s on for a long time. Switch to that slide when you’re not presenting some other slide that’s relevant to the topic you’re discussing. Find a way to put your lecture notes on another document that you can keep on your laptop screen but does not show on the projection screen.

    I’ll tell you this, I absolutely detest the kind of “newspeak” that has been becoming popular, where people write incomplete sentences and expect to read or hear same. Reasonable abbreviation and shortcuts are one thing, but the tendency has become extreme. Another technology that’s guilty in this area, is text messaging via cellphone, or as I call it, portable telegraph. Like Orwell’s original Newspeak, it circumvents thinking and tends to produce interaction-by-reflex.

    Under all of it is the relentless pressure to do too much in too little time. Resist that with all you’ve got. Insist that people take the time to think and ask questions. Cover less material if you must, and do it at a more thoughtful pace. If you want to make the point excruciatingly clear, use deliberately retro language and methods of presentation. Cultivate the old ways of speaking and listening. People will at first think it’s odd, and then come to recognize it has value.

    We do not have to let our tools dictate how we think and interact. We can still think for ourselves. All it takes is the will. And in this century, between energy & resource crises, the climate crisis, emerging diseases, and the risk of domestic tyranny, anyone who doesn’t even have that degree of will is going to end up darwinized.