This week a Wall Street Journal article entitled PowerPoint Turns 20, As Its Creators Ponder A Dark Side to Success is getting a bit of attention. The article has a few good comments from the two creators of PowerPoint, Robert Gaskins and Dennis Austin, who produced PowerPoint 1.0 in 1987 and then sold it later that year to Microsoft (and oy vey! the world hasn’t been the same since).
Don’t blame Microsoft
We all agree that the majority of presentations given with PowerPoint “suck rotten eggs” as Seth Godin says in his e-book. But this is largely so because people do not know (or don’t care about) the difference between a well-written document and well-designed supporting visuals. PowerPoint users usually shoot for the middle and create a slideument, a “document” that would make your third-grade English teacher apoplectic with disgust and shame that you ever attended her class, and draw scowls of disapproval from anyone who makes a living as a designer or visual communicator.
PowerPoint is not the cause of bad business presentations, but laziness and poor writing skills may be. The point is not to place more text within tiny slides intended for images and visual displays of data. The point is to first (usually) create a well-written, detailed document. Do business people still know how to write?
“A lot of people in business have given up writing the documents. They just write the presentations, which are summaries without the detail, without the backup. A lot of people don't like the intellectual rigor of actually doing the work."
— Robert Gaskins in an interview with the Wall Street Journal
Visual literacy and design literacy have never been more important, and these subjects should be taught in schools. However, this does not mean that the ability to write well is any less important than it used to be, in fact good writing skills are also more important than ever. The future may belong to the designers, but it will also belong to those who can write insanely well. Sadly, I’m afraid that solid writing skills will become increasingly rare.
Can reading and writing make you a better speaker?
I became a better speaker and presenter after college in part because I majored in Philosophy, a degree that required loads and loads of reading, writing, and arguing…daily. All this reading and writing, oddly enough, made me a more articulate speaker as I learned better how to think critically, listen to opposing views, and spell out my ideas or position clearly and succinctly. I’m not against young children using PowerPoint in schools, but I hope the presentations they are making are verbal reports which are coming at the end of rigorous research and well-reasoned, detailed written reports. I fear that the “PowerPoint presentations” are often a replacement for written papers rather than an extension or augmentation of the research and written work.
“Now grade-school children turn in book reports via PowerPoint. [The PowerPoint inventors] call that an abomination. Children, they emphatically agree, need to think and write in complete paragraphs.”
— Lee Gomes, Wall Street Journal article on PowerPoint
Adults do silly things with PowerPoint too
We can’t blame the kids for making really bad PowerPoint. They learn bad habits from us. It’s all around them, and they don’t have to look far. Even (especially?) prominent U.S. politicians can produce some really bad PowerPoint. Leave it to a U.S. politician, then, to this week proudly display a PowerPoint deck that exemplifies everything that’s wrong with the way PowerPoint is used today. It's odd that anyone can look at these slides by Mitt Romney and then label the creator of such obfuscation and bad design as “Multimedia Mitt”. (Is the PowerPoint bar really set that low?) No words are necessary from me. Enjoy the slide show with the world’s longest title.
Click slide above to see the entire PowerPoint deck (if you must).