PowerPoint Overload – Two Pounds of Sausage in a One Pound Bag

tufte_pp_coverIn an article that reads surprisingly like a case study from a course on McLuhans’ Laws of Media, T. X. Hammes writes in the Armed Forces Journal on the pernicious effects of pushing PowerPoint too far in the presentation culture of the Pentagon. Apparently keenly aware of the implicit bias of media, Hammes observes:

“Every year, the services spend millions of dollars teaching our people how to think. We invest in everything from war colleges to noncommissioned officer schools. Our senior schools in particular expose our leaders to broad issues and historical insights in an attempt to expose the complex and interactive nature of many of the decisions they will make.

Unfortunately, as soon as they graduate, our people return to a world driven by a tool that is the antithesis of thinking: PowerPoint. Make no mistake, PowerPoint is not a neutral tool — it is actively hostile to thoughtful decision-making. It has fundamentally changed our culture by altering the expectations of who makes decisions, what decisions they make and how they make them. While this may seem to be a sweeping generalization, I think a brief examination of the impact of PowerPoint will support this statement.”

Others have voiced concern over the nature and limitations of this tool and its ilk. Edward Tufte for example penned the monograph “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within” in an attempt to illustrate the common problems with the medium and offer suggestions on how to rectify them. Designers, illustrators and even cognitive scientists join the chorus in an effort to stem the plague of needlessly ineffective slide shows.

PowerPoint and its cousins have their genetic roots in presentation packages designed for selling, which is why PowerPoint still has a strong tendency to reduce everything it touches to a sales pitch. Hammes lights on this when he mentions how language and communication are bent to that of the Ad Man:

“Let’s start by examining the impact on staff work. Rather than the intellectually demanding work of condensing a complex issue to two pages of clear text, the staff instead works to create 20 to 60 slides. Time is wasted on which pictures to put on the slides, how to build complex illustrations and what bullets should be included. I have even heard conversations about what font to use and what colors. Most damaging is the reduction of complex issues to bullet points. Obviously, bullets are not the same as complete sentences, which require developing coherent thoughts. Instead of forcing officers to learn the art of summarizing complex issues into coherent arguments, staff work now places a premium on slide building. Slide-ology has become an art in itself, while thinking is often relegated to producing bullets.”

In PowerPoint language is reduced to a staccato burst of one-liners. Complete sentences are not at home in the medium. Language and rhetoric are reduced to a fractured mosaic of bullets, images and partial thoughts that serve as placeholders for information and ideas. The inherent bandwidth limitation of the medium is fine for sales presentations but falls flat when content and depth are required. Users struggle, perhaps unknowingly, to compensate for the inherent bias of the medium:

“Our personnel clearly understand the lack of clarity and depth inherent in the half-formed thoughts of the bullet format. In an apparent effort to overcome the obvious deficiency of bullets, some briefers put entire paragraphs on each briefing slide. (Of course, they still include the bullet point in front of each paragraph.) Some briefs consist of a series of slides with paragraphs on them. In short, people are attempting to provide the audience with complete, coherent thoughts while adhering to the PowerPoint format. While writing full paragraphs does force the briefer to think through his position more clearly, this effort is doomed to failure.”

Compounding the problem, (post-literate) reading speeds and the need to digest detailed and complex data fly in the face of the easy sales pitch proffered by the slide deck:

“People need time to think about, even perhaps reread, material about complex issues. Instead, they are under pressure to finish reading the slides before the boss apparently does. Compounding the problem, the briefer often reads these slides aloud while the audience is trying to read the other information on the slide. Since most people read at least twice as fast as most people can talk, he is wasting half of his listeners’ time and simultaneously reducing comprehension of the material. The alternative, letting the audience read the slide themselves, is also ineffective. Instead of reading for comprehension, everyone races through the slide to be sure they are finished before the senior person at the brief. Thus even presenting full paragraphs on each slide cannot overcome the fundamental weakness of PowerPoint as a tool for presenting complex issues.”

Hammes notes other signs of users’ struggle against the flow of the medium in mentioning the “quad chart” and slides crammed with so much information they cannot be processed by the viewer’s visual system, let alone addressed by the speaker. This is simply a low-bandwidth medium with rigid boundaries.

An Example Quad Chart
An Example Quad Chart

“The next major impact of slide-ology has been the pernicious growth in the amount of information portrayed on each slide. A friend with multiple tours in the Pentagon said a good rule of thumb in preparing a brief is to assume one slide per minute of briefing. Surprisingly, it seems to be true. Yet, even before the onslaught of the dreaded quad chart, I saw slides with up to 90 pieces of information. Presumably, some thought went into the bullets, charts, pictures and emblems portrayed on that slide, yet the vast majority of the information was completely wasted. The briefer never spoke about most of the information, and the slide was on screen for a little more than a minute. While this slide was an aberration, charts with 20 items of information portrayed in complex graphics are all too common. This gives the audience an average of three seconds to see and absorb each item of information. As if this weren’t sufficient to block the transfer of information, some PowerPoint Ranger invented quad charts. For those unfamiliar with a quad chart, it is simply a Power Point slide divided into four equal quadrants and then a full slide is placed in each quadrant. If the briefer clicks on any of the four slides, it can become a full-sized slide. Why this is a good idea escapes me.”

Hammes further notes that PowerPoint, like every technology, creates or alters the environment of the user. Interestingly, Hammes cites the effect PowerPoint has on time and events:

“PowerPoint has clearly decreased the quality of the information provided to the decision-maker, but the damage doesn’t end there. It has also changed the culture of decision-making. In my experience, pre-PowerPoint staffs prepared two to four decision papers a day because that’s as many as most bosses would accept. These would be prepared and sent home with the decision-maker and each staff member that would participate in the subsequent discussion. Because of the tempo, most decision-makers did not take on more than three or four a day simply because of the requirement to read, absorb, think about and then be prepared to discuss the issue the following day. As an added benefit for most important decisions, they ‘slept on it.’

PowerPoint has changed that. Key decision-makers’ days are now broken down into one-hour and even 30-minute segments that are allocated for briefs. Of particular concern, many of these briefs are decision briefs. Thus senior decision-makers are making more decisions with less preparation and less time for thought. Why we press for quick decisions when those decisions will take weeks or even months to simply work their way through the bureaucracy at the top puzzles me.”

Hammes does not miss the effect the indiscriminate use of the tool has on understanding and thought processes (“We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” – McLuhan):

“Unfortunately, by using PowerPoint inappropriately, we have created a thought process centered on bullets and complex charts. This has a number of impacts. First, it reduces clarity since a bullet is essentially an outline for a sentence and a series of bullets outline a paragraph. They fail to provide the details essential to understanding the ideas being expressed. While this helps immensely with compromise, since the readers can create their own narrative paragraphs from the bullets, it creates problems when people discover what they agreed to is not what they thought they had agreed to. Worse, it creates a belief that complex issues can, and should, be reduced to bullets. It has reached the point where some decision-makers actually refuse to read a two-page briefing paper and instead insist PowerPoint be used.”

In closing Hammes concedes that there are appropriate uses for PowerPoint but these tend to be presentations that are closer to its origin: “primarily, information briefs rather than decision briefs.” As depth and complexity increase, the appropriateness of PowerPoint falls away. As Hammes says, “There is a reason students cannot submit a thesis in PowerPoint format.”

4 Responses

  1. A number of articles have come out recently about a growing discontent in the US Military and Pentagon regarding the use of PowerPoint. The Christian Science Monitor presents a particularly good résumé of the situation in an article titled “Predicate verbs fend off ‘death by PowerPoint'”.


    Some highlights from the article include:

    “PowerPoint has become a running joke both at the Pentagon and on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan because of the time and energy spent preparing slides.”

    “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control…. Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

    “Commanders say that the slides impart less information than a five-page paper can hold, and that they relieve the briefer of the need to polish writing to convey an analytic, persuasive point. Imagine lawyers presenting arguments before the Supreme Court in slides instead of legal briefs.”

    In summary: “Let’s not forget the power of the complete sentence and the humble predicate verb – the “motor” of a good sentence.”

    The Christian Science Monitor

  2. A study reported by the British Psychological Society considers whether there is an advantage to giving out copies of PowerPoint slides prior to a presentation. Students (74%) prefer handouts prior to a lecture as an aid to taking notes. About half the lecturers (49%) prefer to hold back on handouts (or omit them altogether) suggesting that the omission encourages students to pay attention.

    The study considered groups of university students with and without handouts and compared their performances.

    “The key finding is that having handouts in the lecture versus only receiving them at the review stage made no difference to test performance. Although the students who had the handouts in-lecture made fewer notes, this didn’t affect to harm their test performance at either the 12-minute or 1-week delay.”

    “A follow-up study with 34 students was identical to the first but the testing only took place 12-minutes after the lectures and this time the review session was self-paced for half the students but just two-mintues long the others. Students provided with handouts during the lectures again took fewer notes but this time they actually out-performed those who only received the handouts after the lectures.

    The findings provide prelimary evidence that lecturers should provide their students with handouts during the lecture. Regarding the more extensive note-taking that took place when handouts were held back until after a lecture, the researchers speculated that this was ‘unlikely to be a deep encoding task’, which would normally be expected to aid memory retention, and may instead have acted merely acted as a distraction. ”

    Marsh, E., and Sink, H. (2009). Access to handouts of presentation slides during lecture: Consequences for learning. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24 (5), 691-706 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1579

    Lecturers should provide powerpoint handouts before the lecture


  3. In what must be the all-time award winner for the US Pentagon’s outlandish use of PowerPoint, writer Noah Shachtman at Wired has a monstrosity that purports to show the elaborate procurement process used by the Military to purchase equipment and supplies. It would be much funnier if it were not real.

    “All of the complexity of the Afghan conflict — and all of the bureaucracy NATO used to manage the counterinsurgency effort — was summed up by a single spaghetti monster of a PowerPoint slide. ‘When we understand [it],” war commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal joked when he saw the slide, “we’ll have won the war.’

    Please read more here.

    Pentagon’s Craziest PowerPoint Slide Revealed

  4. “One of the first things [Steve] Jobs did during the product review process was ban PowerPoints. `I hate the way people use slide presentations instead of thinking,’ Jobs later recalled. `People would confront a problem by creating a presentation. I wanted them to engage, to has things out at the table, rather than show a bunch of slides. People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint.'”

    — Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), 337.

    — Curt (at edwardtufte.com), October 26, 2011

    See: http://www.edwardtufte.com/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg?msg_id=0001yB&topic_id=1

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