Pastations: Is it Time to Move Beyond Presentations?

26 Dec

In an influential essay, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoints, Tufte argues that (PowerPoint) presentations are unsuitable for serious problems. The essay is largely polemical, with Tufte freely mixing points about affordances of the medium with criticisms of bad presentations and lazy broadsides.

Hilarious stuff first:

  1. “All 3 reports have standard PP format problems: elaborate bullet outlines; segregation of words and numbers (12 of 14 slides with quantitative data have no accompanying analysis); atrocious typography; data imprisoned in tables by thick nets of spreadsheet grids; only 10 to 20 short lines of text per slide.”
  2. “On this single Columbia slide, in a PowerPoint festival of bureaucratic hyper-rationalism, 6 different levels of hierarchy are used to classify, prioritize, and display 11 simple sentences”
  3. “In 28 books on PP presentations, the 217 data graphics depict an average of 12 numbers each. Compared to the worldwide publications shown in the table at right, the statistical graphics based on PP templates are the thinnest of all, except for those in Pravda back in 1982, when that newspaper operated as the major propaganda instrument of the Soviet communist party and a totalitarian government.”

In the essay, I could only rescue two points about affordances (that I buy):

  1. “When information is stacked in time, it is difficult to understand context and evaluate relationships.”
  2. Inefficiency: “A talk, which proceeds at a pace of 100 to 160 spoken words per minute, is not an especially high resolution method of data transmission. Rates of transmitting visual evidence can be far higher. … People read 300 to 1,000 printed words a minute, and find their way around a printed map or a 35mm slide displaying 5 to 40 MB in the visual field. Yet, in a strange reversal, nearly all PowerPoint slides that accompany talks have much lower rates of information transmission than the talk itself. As shown in this table, the PowerPoint slide typically shows 40 words, which is about 8 seconds worth of silent reading material. The slides in PP textbooks are particularly disturbing: in 28 textbooks, which should use only first-rate examples, the median number of words per slide is 15, worthy of billboards, about 3 or 4 seconds of silent reading material. This poverty of content has several sources. First, the PP design style, which typically uses only about 30% to 40% of the space available on a slide to show unique content, with all remaining space devoted to Phluff, bullets, frames, and branding. Second, the slide projection of text, which requires very large type so the audience can read the words.”

From Working Backwards, which cites the article as the reason Amazon pivoted from presentations to 6-pagers for its S-team meetings, there is one more reasonable point about presentations more generally:

“…the public speaking skills of the presenter, and the graphics arts expertise behind their slide deck, have an undue—and highly variable—effect on how well their ideas are understood.”

Working Backwards

The points about graphics arts expertise, etc., apply to all documents but are likely less true for reports than presentations. (It would be great to test the prettiness of graphics on their persuasiveness.)

Reading the essay made me think harder about why we use presentations in meetings about complex topics more generally. For instance, academics frequently present to other academics. Replacing presentations with 6-pagers that people quietly read and comment on at the start of the meeting and then discuss may yield higher quality comments and better discussion and better evaluation of the scholar (and the scholarship).

p.s. If you haven’t seen Norvig’s Gettysburg Address in PowerPoint, you must.

p.p.s. Ed Haertel forwarded me this piece by Sam Wineburger on why asking students to create powerpoints is worse than asking them to write an essay.

p.p.p.s. Here’s how Amazon runs its S-team meetings (via Working Backwards):

1. 6-pager (can have appendices) distributed at the start of the discussion.

2. People read in silence and comment for the first 20 min.

3. Rest 40 min. devoted to discussion, which is organized by 1. big issues/small issues, 2. people going around the room, etc.

4. One dedicated person to take notes.

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