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June 24, 2007

"Power corrupts, and PowerPoint corrupts absolutely"

by Nicholas Beaudrot of Electoral Math

Mitt Romney's "Global Initiative For Value And Freedom" Powerpoint slide deck is truly awful, and fits well with his campaign that seems to be built around appearing to be President rather than functioning as President. I can't really say it much better than this myself. Powerpoint is the business version of the bumper sticker; designing presentations around a Powerpoint deck (rather than usuing a few slides to supplement your speech) isn't a very good idea. If you put slides up on a projector, everyone will spend time reading the slides and ignore your speech. Powerpoint's tendency to promote bulleted lists, sentence fragments, and chopped paragraphs makes it impossible to string together a series of related ideas. The amount of information on a single slide is usually incredibly low, on the order of a page in a second grade level learn-to-read book. This low level of information content means that Powerpoint decks have dozens of slides, which leads to audience whiplash by making it difficult to draw relationships between bits of knowledge on different slides. In short, the Romney campaign insults its audience by trying to whittle his "ideas" on the war on terror (which are heavy on complaints about bureaucracy and Bill Clinton, while ) into too small a space. In addition, Romney's deck in particular is totally useless when not presented alongside whatever speech it is to be given with, which is more or less the fundamental problem with using Powerpoint as the center of your presentation.

Check out the GettysburgAddress.ppt for a satirical look at result of this Powerpointmania.

June 24, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

Ever seen Richard Dawkins give a lecture? That's the way to use powerpoint- his slides are just images, no words at all, so you look at them and are more motivated to listen to him to find out what they mean.

Posted by: SP | Jun 24, 2007 7:24:30 PM

Aside from the content, how can you have as much money as Romney and have such an ugly website?

Oh, and Romney's logo looks like he's running for Postmaster General! Sounds like a good idea to me!

Posted by: Gary | Jun 24, 2007 7:27:56 PM

Having worked for McKinsey/Bain/BCG type consultants, I'd say Romney's deck would get a pretty good drubbing - the organizing principle isn't great, and as noted, he's putting into the slides what he should be saying. My old boss used to refer to his key slide as the "BFA" - the "Big Fucking Arrow" that pointed to a dramatic, but obvious conclusion the client should have known but needed somebody to say in words. My main question is, where's Romney's BFA? His complaints are scattershot, and trying to pin his critique on some liberal misunderstanding of the "War on Terror" seems misplaced when each of his sub-points - from military funding to a lack of preventive measures on the part of Homeland Security - speak to failures of the Bush Administration, not "liberals." And what any of that has to do with his final slides on wealth and population growth eludes me. Like any good client, we should probably toss this desk in a drawer (or the trash), and start looking for new consultants. This guy's wasting our time. :)

Posted by: weboy | Jun 24, 2007 8:03:12 PM

I am embarrassed to link to my own blog, but I have always loved my friend's PowerPoint presentation.

Posted by: Megan | Jun 24, 2007 8:35:42 PM

I don't mean this to sound too snarky, but I am not sure you know what you are talking about here, Nicholas.

If you are a persuasive speaker and a good teacher, you can teach with PowerPoint, Notepad, a whiteboard, or a cocktail napkin. PowerPoint is just a tool - it's neither good nor evil.

Posted by: MarkT | Jun 24, 2007 9:57:05 PM

I think my point is that for a lot of people, PowerPoint is a crutch. Someone who is "a persuasive speaker and a good teacher" would not produce a 31-deck slide for an hour-long talk.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Jun 24, 2007 10:33:36 PM

Speaking as someone who's had to construct speeches with Powerpoint, I'd like to point out that it's a typical shitty Microsoft product that badly needs some competition...just for its crimes of auto-font-sizing alone. And let us not speak of the horrid circa-1985 backgrounds and themes...and oh God, the clip art "people"....it's a graphic nightmare of the first order.

Posted by: emjaybee | Jun 25, 2007 12:03:38 AM

Ever seen Richard Dawkins give a lecture? That's the way to use powerpoint- his slides are just images, no words at all, so you look at them and are more motivated to listen to him to find out what they mean.

Larry Lessig. One-word slides.

But Dawkins presumably comes from an academic background where the OHP was part of lectures, with a circulated handout.

PowerPoint is just a tool - it's neither good nor evil.

Let's say, then, that PowerPoint wizards are evil. Or designed to do evil.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Jun 25, 2007 2:10:18 AM

I think my point is that for a lot of people, PowerPoint is a crutch. Someone who is "a persuasive speaker and a good teacher" would not produce a 31-deck slide for an hour-long talk.

Public speaking in general--and creating/using PowerPoint in particular--is a specific skill most people have to learn and practice.

I think your overall point about PowerPoint use is fair. It does strike me as a no-brainer when applied as a generalization instead of as a criticism targeted at a candidate for public office.

When generalizing, perhaps it'd be more appropriate to say that given PowerPoint's ubiquity people ought to invest the time learning its proper use. Some of the best money I ever spent was on tuition for a public speaking skills class which included how to effectively incorporate PowerPoint.

Posted by: Andrew | Jun 25, 2007 2:24:59 AM

Enron was famous for its polished PowerPoint presentations. Honest.

Edward Tufte, dean of the field (whatever that field is called) published his very negative assessment of "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint" four years or so ago. There's a summary at:
http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.09/ppt2.html
and the full thing is available from:
http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/powerpoint
It's a very worthwhile piece and merits inclusion in discussions like this. His centerpiece is the engineers' PowerPoint presentations for the Columbia space shuttle.

Dan Tompkins

Posted by: Dan Tompkins | Jun 25, 2007 8:23:47 AM

> Someone who is "a persuasive speaker and a good
> teacher" would not produce a 31-deck slide for an
> hour-long talk.

I've been teaching (using PPT) just about full time for 14 years.

31 slides for an hour isn't bad - lightweight slides that focus on one concept are good. A small amount of text and a nice image per slide are usually the way to go.

Both Lessig and Tufte are good to study if you want to see a few masters in action. I'd also recommend watching Steve Jobs.

Posted by: MarkT | Jun 25, 2007 8:54:16 AM

Garr reynolds has some good ideas also at

http://www.garrreynolds.com/Presentation/slides.html

also presentation zen (which even hits on Mitt's mess) --

http://www.presentationzen.com/

finally http://citnews.unl.edu/presentations/

from the University of Nebraska/Lincoln has severla good ideas, especially for more scientific presentations

Posted by: BillCross | Jun 25, 2007 1:18:25 PM

Both Lessig and Tufte are good to study if you want to see a few masters in action.

But Tufte basically doesn't use Powerpoint! As he says, rather than supplementing presentations, most people just build their presentation around the slide deck. He recommends that you produce a four page typed technical report instead of a slide deck. I went to one of his seminars ... which was great, even if he is a bit of a curmudgeon ... and I think he used like five slides the whole day!

Other commenters seem to be getting the gestalt. The tool is not evil; conventional usage of the tool is evil. But that's a bit of a "guns don't kill people" argument. I mean, I'm all for keeping PPT as the predominant tool and teaching to use it more effectively. But it's going to be a long, hard, slog for most of the world, which I think is worth recognizing.

I haven't seen Lessig ... I'll check him out if I get a chance.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Jun 25, 2007 4:43:33 PM

But it's going to be a long, hard, slog for most of the world, which I think is worth recognizing.

Unnecessarily hyperbolic to bring guns into the argument, no?

While it probably will be a long, hard slog for most of the world, it doesn't have to be. It's not like the expectation should be mastery, just general proficiency would be fine.

Since we're talking about people who have to give presentations, let's assume the target population already has some basic training in writing and constructing an argument. We don't have to reinvent the wheel and teach them everything from scratch.

When learning to write most of them were probably given a basic template, the five paragraph essay, to fit their ideas to. What's they need now is a PPT version of the five paragraph essay.

Will people look like they just learned how to use PPT in a class or from a book? Sure. But wouldn't we rather see a well-constructed, formulaic, and basic slideshow than the chaotic thing Romney put together?

There are only a few concepts they need to learn for both writing it and presenting from it.

Posted by: Andrew | Jun 25, 2007 5:25:42 PM

> But Tufte basically doesn't use Powerpoint!

He still has interesting ideas about how to present information - ideas that you can incorporate into a PPT presentation or a drawing you do on a whiteboard.

Posted by: MarkT | Jun 25, 2007 6:27:33 PM

> What's they need now is a PPT version of the five paragraph essay.

You can try reading "Beyond Bullet Points" for one attempt at a formula. It has a number of interesting ideas.

Posted by: MarkT | Jun 25, 2007 6:28:55 PM

> What's they need now is a PPT version of the five paragraph essay.

You can try reading "Beyond Bullet Points" for one attempt at a formula. It has a number of interesting ideas.

Posted by: MarkT | Jun 25, 2007 6:29:10 PM

Sorry about the unclosed tag.

Thanks for the tip about Beyond Bullet Points. I've taken a public speaking class so I already have a slideshow template and presentation technique in mind.

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Posted by: judy | Oct 8, 2007 8:50:15 AM

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