Pondering the Perils of PowerPoint

By Peter DeArmond

A few years ago I witnessed something that made me cringe.  

The leaders of a well-known Fortune 500 corporation decided they needed a nationwide customer service training program.  Their industry always has been highly competitive, so their goal to be known for outstanding customer service was commendable.

But then they contracted with an outside company to develop 100 PowerPoint slides to hammer home the importance of customer service. 


And then they contracted with trainers who were told to deliver these PowerPoint slides with “a lot of enthusiasm and energy.”  

Oh my.


To any seasoned facilitator who understands the importance of experiential learning methods, it’s sad to find some organizations who buy into the idea that PowerPoint presentations are synonymous with good training.  For that matter, from what I’ve witnessed, I would suggest that PowerPoint doesn’t even make for good presentations.

So what’s the big objection to PowerPoint?  Nothing, really, except for the way it’s used 90 percent of the time.  And a lot of people finally are beginning to recognize this.

Three years ago, The New York Times published a story under the headline, “We Have Met the Enemy and He is PowerPoint.” The story quoted Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps as saying, “PowerPoint makes us stupid.”  And it quoted Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal as saying, “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control.”

On a more humorous note, a public speaking trainer in Switzerland wrote a book called The Fallacy of PowerPoint, and then formed a political party whose sole goal was to ban presentation software in his country.  The formation of a political party may be tongue-in-cheek, but the author, Matthias Poehm, asserts that the use of PowerPoint costs the economy of Switzerland and the rest of Europe billions of dollars because the vast majority of people see no purpose in it.

Some of the more astute objections to PowerPoint trace back to articles published in 2003 by Dr. Edward Tufte, a recognized expert on information design who wrote a phenomenal book, Visual Display of Quantitative Information. 

According to Dr. Tufte, in a business setting, a PowerPoint slide typically shows about 40 words, which is about eight seconds' worth of silent reading material. He observed, “With so little information per slide, many, many slides are needed. Audiences consequently endure a relentless sequentiality, one damn slide after another. When information is stacked in time, it is difficult to understand context and evaluate relationships.” 

Another big problem with PowerPoint is that it often elevates glitzy effects over substance. Years ago, when I was a graphic design editor, I learned that a visual element that calls attention to itself is a distraction — it takes the focus away from what’s most important. You don’t need fancy “fly-ins” to make your point, and the more visual effects you use, the more you risk creating distractions that inhibit the communication of ideas.

Many people begin using PowerPoint as a way to organize their thoughts, but then they fall into the trap of turning that into a presentation. It feels like the software is helping you think about your talking points and, oh – as an added bonus – creates a presentation for you at the same time! It’s really a lazy way to prepare for a presentation.

Of course, if you put too many words on a slide, you create another kind of distraction.  What if the presenter practically reads a huge block of text that’s being projected on the screen? (I’ve seen this happen all too often.) As Dr. Tufte wondered, should the audience look at the screen, or the presenter?  Maybe they’re thinking this is a good time to take a nap.

Now to be fair to PowerPoint, I’ll offer one more quote from Dr. Tufte:

“… is it possible to use PowerPoint in an effective presentation? Yes. You just have to work extra hard to avoid most of the things that PowerPoint tries to draw you into.  Use it sparingly if you use it all.  The most effective PowerPoint presentation that I ever saw contained three slides.”

Just as using a computer keyboard and spell checker doesn’t guarantee you’ll write a good novel, using PowerPoint doesn’t guarantee you’ll do a good presentation. If you want to be an effective presenter, you can’t avoid the preparation.

This is why I think teachers should stop telling their students that learning PowerPoint is necessary to be successful in the business world. It’s not!  Yet I know many college instructors who tell their students that their classroom presentations must be done with PowerPoint.  

I’ve taught a popular class on “How to Do Effective Presentations without Powerpoint.” My students learned the importance of good speaking skills, overcoming the fear of speaking in front of a group, staying focused on the purpose of the presentation, organizing the content well, interacting with the audience, and using only those visual elements that contain critically important information. In other words, my students learned that people, not software, make effective presentations. 

It’s been five years since I witnessed the PowerPoint debacle that made me cringe. I remember asking someone if that “training” had any metrics — a way to measure objectively whether the presentations were resulting in improved performance in customer service. The answer was no. I wondered (to myself) what the shareholders of the corporation would think if they knew that a huge amount of money was spent on a nationwide training program that had no evaluation plan to determine whether it was even remotely effective.     

That’s the subject of a future article.