David Byrne on PowerPoint: Freedom — who needs it?
PowerPoint: sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying

Is it finally time to ditch PowerPoint?

Ppt_mac_can_2 Last week an article appearing in The Sydney Morning Herald entitled Researcher points finger at PowerPoint generated quite a stir. The article highlighted findings by researchers from the University of New South Wales, including John Sweller who developed the Cognitive Load Theory back in the '80s. One of the findings mentioned in the article: it is more difficult to process information if it is coming at you both verbally and in written form at the same time. Since people can not read and listen well at the same time, the reporter suggested, then this may mean "the death of the PowerPoint presentation." The assumption being (apparently) that a presentation made with the aid of slideware such as PowerPoint or Keynote necessarily includes lines of text projected on a screen that mirror the spoken word of the presenter.

The article generated so much attention due in part to this quote by Professor Sweller:

"The use of the PowerPoint presentation has been a disaster. It should be ditched."

                                                   — John Sweller

Professor Sweller's comment makes a provocative headline and adds to the long list of professionals and researchers deriding the PowerPoint tool. I have added the professor's quote to my talks on the Presentation Zen approach. Two versions of the slide appear below.


Is PowerPoint a method?
I am assuming that what Professor Sweller means is that the way PowerPoint is used should be ditched, not the tool itself. Suggesting we abandon PowerPoint because it's often (usually?) misused and abused to produce awful presentation visuals is like saying we should dump the idea of 24-hour cable news because so much of it is vacuous rubbish. But whether we’re talking about bad TV or boring presentations, shouldn't we blame the content producers not the content medium? When people rail against PowerPoint they seem to be saying that PowerPoint is a method, and a flawed method at that. But is PowerPoint itself really a "method"? In a 2004 interview with Cliff Atkinson, Multimedia Learning author Richard Mayer said this:

"I do not think it makes sense to refer to PowerPoint as a method. Instead... PowerPoint is a medium that can be used effectively — that is, with effective design methods — or ineffectively, that is with ineffective design methods. We would not necessarily say that books are rarely a good method, because books can be designed using effective or ineffective methods."

                                                          — Richard Mayer

Cognitive load theory
Multimedia_learning I first read about the cognitive load theory as it relates to presentation in Richard Mayer’s Multimedia Learning. Sweller’s work is often cited in Multimedia Learning and many of his publications are also online. In this paper, for example, called Visualisation and Instructional Design (pdf), Sweller discusses several of the effects related to the cognitive load theory. For example, the modality effect shows that ”working memory can be increased by using dual rather than a single modality.” That is, it is more effective to target both the visual and auditory processors of working memory. Another effect in the cognitive load theory is called the redundancy effect (also outlined by Mayer in Multimedia Learning). The redundancy effect says that if one form of instruction (such as the spoken word) is intelligible and adequate then providing the same material in another form (such as lines of text on a screen that mimic the words being spoken) are redundant and can actually hurt understanding. This may seem counterintuitive and it certainly runs counter to many of the ways presentations are made in business or lesson taught in schools.

Below is another quote from Prof. Sweller from the same newspaper article. Here Sweller is surely referring to both the redundancy and modality effects:

"It is effective to speak to a diagram, because it presents information in a different form. But it is not effective to speak the same words that are written, because it is putting too much load on the mind and decreases your ability to understand what is being presented."

                                                        — John Sweller

In the scenario describe by Sweller above the diagram uses a visual modality and the speech uses an auditory modality which should result in greater working memory capacity and better understanding, depending, of course, on what is being presented.

Words should be presented as speech
Really_bad_ppt2 The article in The Sydney Morning Herald put the ol’ bullet-filled PowerPoint slide back in the firing line. Good presentation techniques, and even classroom instruction methods, are as much art as science. Still, we can learn a lot from examining the findings from researchers such as Sweller and Mayer. Most of us know intuitively (or through experience) that presenting to an audience with text-filled slides does not work, but others — your boss perhaps — may need more convincing. This is where the research and evidence from specialists in psychology, education and other disciplines can be a great help. Research shows that visuals (animation) plus concise, simultaneous narration is better than just narration alone. When it comes to the issue of projected text on a screen and narration, Mayer draws this conclusion:

“Words should be presented as speech (i.e., narration) rather than text (i.e., on-screen text) or as speech and text.”

                                                      — Richard Mayer

What to do about PowerPoint?
Stick22 So, is it finally time to ditch PowerPoint? Hardly, but it is long past time to ditch the use of the ubiquitous bulleted-list templates found in both PowerPoint and Keynote. And it’s long past time that we realized that putting the same information on a slide that is coming out of our mouths usually does not help — in fact usually hurts our message. Next time you plan a presentation, then, start by using a pencil and pad, a whiteboard, or a stick in the sand — anything except jumping headfirst into slideware on your computer with its templates, outlines, and content wizards that may point you down a path you wish not to go. And as you examine your work from previous talks remember this rule of thumb: if your presentation visuals taken in the aggregate (e.g., your “PowerPoint deck”) can be perfectly and completely understood without your narration, then it begs the question: why are you there?

Book by John Sweller et al: Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load
Bert Decker’s take on the newspaper article



Great insights Garr. I've been experimenting in situations where you read along with a speaker (eg. quotes, sermons and such) Experentially I find there IS conflict in the mind, but I get much more from the eye than I do from the ear.

But then what I think REALLY counts is the overall experience of a speaker and his images, behavior, props, etc. - much more powerful than any text.

Bears out what you preach about PowerPoints.

Seth Yates

Er...University of South Whales? You mean University of New South Wales (NSW)?

Leoni Venter

Sometimes circumstances forces you to make Powerpoint presentations containing your entire presentation... no matter how much it bugs you to do so.

In a previous life I taught introductory Computer Science (and especially C programming) at a university in South Africa. Many of my students were working and could not attend classes. I had to set up my slides for people who would not be there to hear the lecture.

But in class I tended to forgo the slides and rather ran an IDE live to demonstrate the concepts I was talking about, which seemed to work fairly well. The students present certainly were more responsive and interested during the live demos than during 'slideshow' classes.

Interesting blog, by the way, I've been lurking for months ;-)


Garr, do you have any comment then on your own use of quotes in slides?

I felt it was quite ironic for you to use a written quote to illustrate a point about not reading / speaking the same text! ;)

How would you present the quote slide example you have added to your presentation? Would you read the quote or stand silently while your audience read it? Are you concerned that as you speak some people may be rereading the quote and so miss your discussion?

I'd be interested in peoples perspective on this since using quotes in presentations is something I do myself.

Are written quotes different from bullet points or do they suffer the same cognitive limitations?

Jedidja Bourgeois

I can't remember if you mentioned it an earlier post or not, but this is exactly what Cliff Atkinson's book 'Beyond Bullet Points' covers. I think people really enjoy not having to read a ton of text on slides :)

Tom Elliott

This sensible and well-balanced article overlooks one valid use case for an extended text block in powerpoint: a multilingual audience in which many members are accustomed to reading the presenter's language to some degree, but not speaking it. Obviously, this is a niche case, but we do encounter it frequently in academic meetings. In glossing the text of key points, as well as whole quotations, the presenter provides the audience with extra tools necessary to follow the line of argument and associated evidence. As in all presentations, quotations must be chosen judiciously and used sparingly, but that's a composition/content issue, not a PowerPoint issue.

Garr Reynolds

Thanks for the question, AEM. Yes, I was aware of the irony ;-) With presentations there is more involved, of course, than just information transfer. As I said, it's as much an art as a science. In my talks, *Showing* the quote demonstrates in a sense that "it is real" that I am being accountable, that this person really did say that (and they can look it up if they do not believe me), that I have done my homework and prepared, etc. Showing the actual quote can bring other emotional elements to the talk as well such as credibility, trust, etc. Tom Peters, for example, uses quotes (maybe even too many) for this very same reason. He is just one guy, he says, but if he can show that leaders of industry have said this and that, well, that backs him up.

I am not suggesting that slides can not have some text (even outside of quotes). Sometimes you want to show a list of features or benefits, etc. Many in the science community have found one declarative sentence per slide is a good rule of thumb (with supporting visuals). Then there is the issue of audience members who may be better readers of English than listeners since English is not their native language. In this case the single declarative sentence, single words, etc. may help.

Although many will gasp at the thought, information transfer is not always the main point of the presentation even if we believe it is. In many cases presentations are more about the transfer of emotions, motivation, inspiration, etc. There certainly is no cookie-cutter formula....

Thanks! -g

Fred Woodbridge

Hi Garr,

Great site, great blog; I quote it from time to time on my own blog and my goal is to get and read just about every one of the books you have recommended.

I also saw this NSW article and wrote a post about it and I'm very happy you've tackled it as well. I haven't read your take yet but I'm going to get a nice cup of coffee and read it.



Allan White

Exellent post as usual, Garr. This is challenging many of the assumptions I've had about text onscreen - or rather, articulating some of the unconcious dissonance I've had about how much text is too much.

I'd been searching for the right term for "cognitive load" for a while. When I was designing a lot of Flash animations and interfaces, I came up with the term, "animation load" to describe how much people could handle looking at once. "Cognitive load" describes that much better and more broadly.

You likely don't need to hear this from yet another person, but I really appreciate the work you do on this blog. The entries are much meatier and thought-provoking than the usual blog fare, and you're doing a true service to the presenting community. I've felt personally inspired to do more presentation work, and to be a vocal advocate of better presentation design in my little circle.

I noticed you're in Portland, too - I wonder what a Portland presenter's meetup would be like?


Thanks for this. I am wholeheartedly in agreement on a personal level. On a professional level, I work for a company where PPT decks are the dominant means of communicating any idea, with the result that long-from Word documents are a complete non-starter.

The question then is how do you manage the tension between a good (text light) presentation using the practices you demonstrate above and the requirement to have something meatier to leave behind. If you do two versions, one light for presentation and one meaty for handout, you will probably confuse the attention-challenged in the audience (which these days feels like everyone)...



Allan White

Ken - the only successful way I've seen it done is to have both a handout and a presentation. It's more work, but more effective.

I've seen so many companies try to use PPT as a knowledge management tool, with poor results.

Susan Abbott

We don't blame pencils for bad writing, and we shouldn't blame PowerPoint either.

Having said that, I am dismayed that so many of my clients seem to think PowerPoint is the format they want reports presented in. I love it for presentations, but I do find it difficult to use to communicate complex or nuanced ideas.

Great blog.


Great post. Great blog. When I first saw the title of the post, I thought Apple annouced Keynote for Windows. :)

By the way, how did you create the transparency of the waste basket while having the powerpoint box in there. I am guessing they are different images - waste basket being transparent?

Thanks - Oz


The problem with PowerPoint is some users think it will replace the need for presentation skills and a solid presentation. PowerPoint is only a tool. It should aid presentations, not create them.

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