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.