Tufte: “PowerPoint Is Teh Suxx0rz”

Edward Tufte hates PowerPoint. Off a recommendation from the comments (see? I listen to you people.) I ordered up Tufte’s The Cognitive Style of PowerPointSample a closely-themed Wired article or an I.D. magazine interview.. From the first page to the last, Tufte calls out PowerPoint for most of mankind’s evils but, chief among them, a horrendous “resolution.”

Defined bluntly, if you were to pull out any stock listing from a newspaper grifted from your neighbor’s lawn, you’d find hundreds of listings in a space that’s no larger than — well — that’s no larger than a newspaper, I guess. Lotsa numbers in a small space is high resolution

PowerPoint permits only a few numbers even though you’re projecting it onto the jumbotron of Presentation Room 1. Unacceptably low resolutionTufte: “That [11 by 17 inch] piece of paper shows the content-equivalent of 50 to 250 typical PP slides.”.

The pamphlet also validates the School 2.0 refrain that PowerPoint is, from core to skin, an egocentric tool, one which helps presenters subjugate their audiences, forcing hapless conference-goers into chairs, tying them down with nylon cord, and then telling them things.

Which is where Tufte and I split paths. The real danger in this world isn’t lecturers and presentation software but crappy lecturers and crappy presentation software. PowerPoint, like the printed page, like still images, like moving images (that’d be t.v.), is just a tool, one which has an appropriate use and contextThis is the School 2.0 revolution manifested in my practice, what really excites me about the new system you’re running. There is potential in every tool, no matter its abuse by the majority. Professionally, there’s little more exciting to me than finding the right context and use for a tool and going at it until my practice, just for a second or two, catches fire.. Much like you wouldn’t brush your teeth with a hammer or clean your ears with a lit match, PowerPoint cannot stimulate audience interaction or develop intellectual rigor on its own.

Using PowerPoint properly in its proper context is tricky. The solution, loosely adapted from Tufte along with my daily interactions with much, much better presentation software than PowerPoint this last school year, a solution which I may screenprint onto a fashionable American Apparel onesie to sell from an online store, is: earn your tools. Gonna be a big seller.

As you develop your presentation, in your head you’re already up there in front of millions, a screen looming behind you Citizen Kane-style, but you’re getting ahead of yourself. These people trumpeting the 6x6x6 rule (six words per bullet, six bullets per image, six word slides in a row) are ahead of themselves by a factor of about 216. It’s a rule which says, take your slides, currently at 10x8x12 (for example) and trim them back, edit things down to a lean, mean 6x6x6.

Fact is, y’oughtta start at 0x0x0 and build up only as absolutely necessary. There’s a very basic flowchart operating here.

Does your content work so well on paper that your voice, your gestures, your animus, are required to make it any better? If no, then post it to your blog and clock out. If yes, then the questions get more complicated.

Does your content work so well as you present it that to make it any better you’d have to put supplemental materials in front of your audience? If no, if the effect of visuals on your presentation would be negligible, then picking up PowerPoint would be a form of vanity, an act of audience abuse, and someone needs to save you from yourself.

However, if visuals would help — that is, if you find yourself saying things like “a semicircle is just a circle cut in two pieces” or “the paragraph symbol looks like a, uh, filled-in capital ‘D’ flipped on its side with two parallel lines falling from it” — then Tufte welcomes you to print these diagrams out on paper (a high resolution medium) and distribute them.

Only now do we arrive at PowerPoint, a tool which is permissible under a select set of extenuating circumstances. If distribution of your visuals would prove too costly or if paper wouldn’t do your visuals justice (say, color copies distributed to a large audience) then it’s time to crack open a slidedeck and carefully, very carefully, with the delicacy of a bomb tech, get to workI’d like to believe Tufte wouldn’t have scourged me for my Bullet Ant digression..

Sound a bit overwrought? Anywhere from dozens to thousands of people have given you their time, their attention, and their cash — all limited resources — and it’s time to give back.

The days of presenters reading off bullet points verbatim, their bodies bisecting the angle between the projector screen and their audience, talking in one direction, looking the other, are coming to an end. More and more people are taking the stage. PowerPoint has become so common, the butt of stand-up comedy, that botching it is as socially unacceptable as smoking. No one wants to be that presenter. But until the PowerPoint revolution sees its twilight, the good news for you is that the bar has been set so low you can step over it.

Related:

Design for Educators: Your First Slide

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I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.

4 Comments

  1. Every time I start up PowerPoint, I get so nervous that I am that presenter. And after I give the presentation, I always fear that I’ve failed again and given a perfect example of what PP should never be used for. My friend said it on a recent trip: every teacher’s mantra is “Please, god, don’t let the weak link be me.”

    While I like the commentary you include there, I don’t think those first two questions in bold are quite right. “Does your content work so well…”?? Those read better to me if it’s “Would your content work better if.” Would your content work better if you put supplemental materials in front of your audience? If not, then PP is superfluous and, as you wrote, “a form of vanity.” That makes more sense to me. I get your implication (that the content needs to be as good as the content can possibly be before you start adding something like PP to it), but I think content can sometimes be improved through turning it into a presentation.

    Yup, it’s a tool that needs to be used at the right time. Having students use PP to summarize the story we just read or demonstrate answers to 1-35 odd, that’s not the right time. Perhaps an effective student PP assignment would involve synthesizing meaning from an entire unit of study and not being allowed to use any words on a slide. Images convey meaning, but you have to know what you mean in order to find the right image.

    The same applies to presentations given by teachers.

    And the Bullet Ant digression is a good one. I missed that when it first ran. Add another PP entry to the queue of entries on my blog. You reminded me that I need to follow up on my last one. Money, mouth — you know.

  2. Like the hypothetical assignment in your third ‘graf there, Todd, as well as your revised questions. Those are less awkward.

  3. I love the idea of starting at 0x0x0 and working your way up. I don’t know many adults – let alone kids – who can stay focused for six slides of six bullets each having six words.

    I know you’ve mentioned it before, but I love the Presentation Zen blog. Specifically, this post from 11/2005 that compares and contrasts Steve Jobs and Bill Gates’s presentation styles – down to the aesthetic of their respective slide decks.

    http://tinyurl.com/wm7rs

  4. I’m enjoying your instructional posts on presenting. I feel like I do after a particularly good workshop or class- yes, this is what I’ve been trying to do, but now I understand better how to do it.

    I hate boring PowerPoint presentations. Most of the time I’ve used one, it has been only for images or supplementary stuff (a cartoon or great quote to introduce a new section, for example).

    I loved watching your final slideshow of “Kicking Out the Cliches” and really appreciate that you included that and the handouts.

    Thank you.