Death by Powerpoint

Dear Robert Gaskins,

The words Power Point instantly make me cringe. My eyes glaze over, my extremities go limp, and my mind wonders to somewhere (anywhere) other than the room I’m sitting. This isn’t your fault exactly. It’s a classic case of a good idea being misused. The platform has been hi-jacked by lazy people with no regard for their audience. When you created the software back in the 80’s, did you have any idea it would turn into such an unstoppable and extremely boring monster?

You’re creation of said monster is comparable to that of Dr. Frankenstein. At the outset, your intentions were altruistic. You wanted to create something that would help people present their ideas and make their lives easier. But after you brought your creation to life, it took on a life of it’s own going far beyond your control. It started crushing people’s souls with no regard for human sanity and 20+ years later it still roams the globe in search of boardroom’s attention spans to devour.

Like “the Creature” in Frankenstein it just wants to experience real human interaction, but I’m afraid we’re past that point. Too many ugly slides have been presented and the negative associations  run too deep. It’s time to put the monster down, to learn from our past transgressions.

Do you have any thoughts on Prezi?

PS: This very interesting article talks about how we try to boil everything into bullet points for PPT slides. Problems aren’t always that simple, eg, the Iraq War. 

RESPONSE:

Dear Hayden Bernstein,

Thanks for your note.
   I think that perhaps your experience of PowerPoint has been limited to “the point of delivery” (such as in a classroom), where indeed there is a lot of misuse.  Workgroups actually use PowerPoint for many purposes beyond visuals for a specific speech.  For instance, it’s common for business metrics (such as financial results) to be summarized periodically in standard PowerPoint presentations; the slides can be used as the focus for a discussion, or just circulated (online or in print) and filed.  Most uses of PowerPoint are not theatrical.
  A good source of information about how PowerPoint is used in larger workgroups is a book chapter by Rich Gold, a researcher at Xerox PARC, entitled “Reading PowerPoint”.  I’ve archived a copy online because it’s hard to find in print.
Here’s an example:
“Because the slide in PowerPoint is so stable and formalized, and the
means of PowerPoint production are so ubiquitously distributed on most
PCs, and it is so easy to electronically exchange slides, and we live in an
age of appropriation, annotation, and quotation within most corporations,
there is a brisk trade and economy in slides. It is not uncommon to see
presentations composed primarily of slides produced for other talks by
other people. While this can produce a jarringly ugly and disjointed visual
experience, it does not matter as much as you would expect so long as the
verbal gloss, which is the heartbeat of the presentation, flows.” …
“What arises as the resultant vector is an elaborate gift culture in slides.
“Can I use one of your slides in my presentation?” is an oft-repeated
phrase in any company. The answer is almost always’ “yes,” but it sets up,
or adds to, a balance sheet of favors that over time must get reconciled. If
the favor is considered large, or if the two participants are of unequal status
(either way, it turns out), the phrase “I will give you credit” is appended
to the request. Eventually, a network of slides and favors bonds together
entire departments and can form the basis of corporate cultural identity.
It is not uncommon, for instance, for a certain slide to be used so often,
by so many different people, that it completely breaks free of its original
owner and is considered an “ur-text” of the company. Such texts, because
they remain in PowerPoint (unlike slides produced in Illustrator, for
instance), are highly malleable and can be seen to mutate over months and
even years as they are cast and re-cast into different presentations. A
knowing audience can read these changes, as Soviets used to read the
appearance of Politburo members on the balcony, for changes in the corporate
wind.”
   Gold has many more insights into how PowerPoint is used.  Read the whole thing.
   In another direction, Nancy Duarte actually recommends using PowerPoint for laying out the pages of books!   In fact, she has just released a new book created in PowerPoint as an example of the idea.  See
This is an example of many layout tasks undertaken in PowerPoint, which have little to do with presentations; it is the graphics application that most people feel comfortable with (contrast, for example, Adobe’s excellent Photoshop).
   You ask about Prezi.  I probably haven’t seen it used in its latest version, but I have seen some Prezi presentations.  It appeared to me to be useful for making good-looking “performances” such as a consultant might make to a captive audience, but perhaps less well adapted to the every-Wednesday-morning discussion of last week’s financial results among several people sitting around a table (which is vastly more typical of presentations).  To the extent that Prezi minimizes the concept of “slide” as a first-class object, of course, it lends itself less well to the “brisk trade and economy in slides” noted by Rich Gold.
Best regards,
Robert Gaskins
P.S.  Everything in this reply is also in my book about PowerPoint’s history.  There’s a searchable free full-text copy online at
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