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PowerPoint Abuse? Oversimplification Hinders Communication and Understanding

by Sarito Carroll

Information Architect and Writer, FX One Seven Zero

Microsoft PowerPoint is the most widely used presentation tool in the world, but is its popularity a direct reflection of its efficacy? According to design and content expert Edward Tufte, in his essay The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within, the simple answer is an emphatic no.


Tufte argues PowerPoint puts forth information in a fragmented way, which in turn dilutes content, weakens analytical reasoning and corrupts statistical data. Nonetheless, millions of companies use PowerPoint as their primary means of communication, beyond even that of presentations. Instead of using a word processor to write detailed technical documents, many engineers turn to PowerPoint. Why? Probably because PowerPoint is a no-brainer to use. All you have to do is create a new document, load a template and proceed. But the completed document is often lacking the detailed analysis of data that is needed to communicate complex content. In fact, overuse of PowerPoint suggests laziness on the part of the author, and insults the intelligence of its target audience. Sadly, PowerPoint has become more of crutch than an effective means of communication.

PowerPoint's “relentless sequentiality” fragments information and decreases understanding

Tufte states that in order to understand content, the audience needs to comprehend the relationships between related ideas by viewing them within adjacent space. PowerPoint does not promote thorough explanations, or even complete sentences, for that matter. Instead, it promotes fragmented sentences in the form of bulleted lists, irrelevant hierarchies, and oversimplified charts and graphs. Due to PowerPoint’s low resolution, and the design of its built-in templates, each PowerPoint Slide only uses 40% to 60% of the available space, and each slide contains an average of 40 words. In order to present content that has any complexity, many slides are needed. Consequently, the viewers of the presentation have to “endure a relentless sequentiality, one damn slide after another,” says Tufte. This “relentless sequentiality” makes it difficult to relate to the context to which the information pertains, and audiences are easily lost and lose contact with the content.

Did PowerPoint's ineptitude contribute to NASA's Columbia disaster?

To illustrate the fact the PowerPoint lacks the sophistication that is needed to present complex data, Tufte evaluates how PowerPoint’s ineptitude played a key role in NASA’s Columbia disaster. The main cause of the crash was due to the shuttle’s foam insulation, but information that could have prevented the disaster was put forth within PowerPoint presentations prior to the occurrence of the crash. When NASA assessed the possible causes and implications of the wing damage during the Columbia mission, they presented their findings in PowerPoint presentations. These slides, which were examined by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board after the accident, were crammed with deeply nested bullet points, fragmented sentences, and abbreviations, making them seemingly impossible to comprehend—even to the rocket scientists who were reading them. Key information, that could have potentially prevented the disaster, was buried so deep within the slides of the presentations, that the impact of the content was missed, or skimmed over. This is just one of Tufte’s examples of how PowerPoint forces people to simplify data beyond the point of comprehension.

The root of the problem with PowerPoint is that the format of the presentation, especially when using the built-in templates, is deemed more important than the content. As such, the audience is easily distracted from the issue at hand. Tufte sees PowerPoint as a presenter-oriented tool, which may help a novice presenter organize their thoughts and feel less anxious, but it fundamentally leaves the audience in a passive position. To get real work done, the audience must be engaged with detailed information.

Oversimplification obfuscates communication

So what is the solution? The first step to countering PowerPoint abuse, is to recognize the problem. Should we all uninstall PowerPoint from our computers? Well, no. But, we should examine our motives when we use it. We need to ask ourselves: “Is this the right tool for the job?” ”Are we using PowerPoint because it requires less effort on our part?” “How can I use PowerPoint to the best of its potential without insulting the intelligence of my audience?” Proceed mindfully. Remember, content must always be deemed the most important thing. If PowerPoint slides are unable to effectively communicate the content, consider other tools that could do a better job. Tufte argues that more detail leads to better understanding. The built-in bulleted lists are not always the best way to get an audience to think about an issue. Sometimes technical documents and complex graphs, presented as printed handouts, can more effectively keep a group of people on task. The use of complete sentences is also a very good idea. Even school kids are now using PowerPoint, and as Tufte aptly points out, this is teaching kids to think in a fragmented manner, not in complete sentences. If people need to compare large groupings of information, consider using a good old-fashioned chart.

Tufte’s essay can be purchased at http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/powerpoint

 
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