Absolute Power(point)

After participating in a mildly torturous group PowerPoint presentation of my own this week, I appreciate Tufte’s irreverent attitude toward the presentation medium.

PowerPoints allow speakers to pretend that they are giving a real talk and audiences to pretend they are listening.”

Tufte argues that Powerpoint removes the conversational element out of presentations. In my world,  presenting is pretty Powerpoint-centric.  However, Powerpoint forces the audience to become consumers of information as a presenter churns through slide after slide. Ironically, presenters are now forced figure out how to make their Powerpoint presentations more engaging to the audience. Perhaps the first way to do this could be to reduce the focus on the slides and redirect it to the exchange of information.

First, do no harm

Some of Tufte’s complaints against Powerpoint include:

  • It’s not useful for sharing statistical, analytical information.
  • It’s presenter centered – not audience or content centered. The format of PPTs relies on many sequential slides with small amounts of information on each slide. Stacking information makes it difficult to convey context and relationships to an audience.
  • It’s easy to misrepresent information. Presenting words is difficult because the Powerpoint format forces presenters to use short, incomplete statements and slogans. In certain situations chunked words and data work – other times they don’t. But Tuft points out, the presentation of the content should not be limited by the technology.
  • Clutter. Tufte refers to items like “chartjunk.” If I had a nickel for every time I heard, “The information looks good, but can you make it look prettier?” The rub for me is conveying information in a clean and direct manner while also trying to make it visually “entertaining.”

Tufte stance is that PowerPoint works for about 20% of people. It forces the bottom 10% to organize themselves, and to be prepared with presentation points. For the top 10%, those with exceptional presentation skills already, PowerPoint doesn’t hurt.

Personally, I think that Powerpoint can provide a false sense of security for an inexperienced presenter who creates a PowerPoint deck instead of a presentation.

Try a better metaphor

“A better metaphor for presentations is good teaching.”

Focus on explaining material with credibility and authority. I’m also a big fan of the storytelling metaphor for presentations. A professional workshop geared around presenting as teaching or presenting as storytelling would be far more compelling and useful than one on how to present using PowerPoint.

And while presentation tools like Powerpoint help you prepare and organize inforamation, they can’t inherently make you an engaging and interesting speaker. That takes practice. (I’m the first to admit I could use more.)

After reading Tufte’s chapter, and evaluating my own history with PowerPoint, I think this final presentation might be a good opportunity to explore a new kind of presentation tool.

(Hey there, Prezi)


Tufte, E. R. (2006). The cognitive style of PowerPoint: pitching out corrupts within (2nd ed.). Cheshire, Conn.: Graphics Press.


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