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 PowerPoint
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 resolution
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 context
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 work
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.