The Trouble With PowerPoint
You've got to hand it to Scott McNealy--he never misses an opportunity to
try to stick it to Bill Gates. A couple of years ago the Sun Microsystems
CEO went so far as to try to ban the use of PowerPoint at Sun, claiming
that employees were wasting colossal amounts of time using the Microsoft
software to prepare slides.
It was a dramatic gesture, but this is one tide that isn't about to roll
back on command. PowerPoint and other presentation software are de rigueur
now wherever business people meet to communicate...well, I was about to
say "face to face," but that isn't quite accurate when everybody's staring
at the screen. The technology has even created a new unit of measure for
meting out access to senior management. It used to be that you got ten
minutes of a CEO's time; now you get three slides to make your pitch.
The ability to prepare a slide presentation has become an indispensable
corporate survival skill. Rank novices can start with the templates that
come with the software--"Reporting Progress" (Kandinsky-style blue and red
rectangles) or "Communicating Bad News" (a suggestive shade of brown). But
most managers have come to realize that slides are too important to pick
off the rack. So managers have come up to speed--remarkably quickly.
Corporate types whose interest in media aesthetics was once limited to
watching Siskel and Ebert have now become adept at discussing the use of
arcane filmic effects like builds, dissolves, and wipes. Or if you're too
busy or too old to learn those new tricks, you can use the postmodern ploy
of appropriation--a strategy favored by senior managers. Employees with a
portfolio of good slides can find themselves as much in demand as a kid
with a Nolan Ryan rookie card.
What is the effect of all this? Some say the presentation software
explosion is part of a general decline in public speaking--as Stanford
professor of communications Cliff Nass puts it, "Try to imagine the 'I
have a dream' speech in PowerPoint." But then, it isn't as if public
speaking was exactly flourishing in pre-PowerPoint corporations. And you
have to give the benefit of the doubt to any technology that promises to
make the average corporate speech a bit less numbing.
What's troubling is the way that slides have begun to take on a life of
their own, as if they no longer needed talking heads to speak for them. No
one asks for a memo or report anymore; now it's just "Send me your
slides." Conferences post the slides of their speakers' talks; professors
post the slides of their lectures; the clergy post slides of their sermons
on the Web.
Making sense of such slides in isolation can be like trying to reconstruct
the social life of Pompeii from the graffiti its inhabitants left behind.
But that hasn't stopped the format from spreading to other genres, like
the Web. The slide aesthetic has even made inroads in the book, the last
bastion of connected prose. The other day I went to the business section
of a local bookstore and started opening books at random. I had to do this
12 times before I came to two facing pages of text that were uninterrupted
by a subhead, illustration, figure, sidebar, or some other graphic
And like the book and other communications technologies of the past, this
one is having its effects on the structure of thought itself. The more
PowerPoint presentations you prepare, the more the world seems to package
itself into slide-sized chunks, broken down into bullet items or grouped
in geometric patterns that have come to have almost talismanic force. A
friend of mine who works for a large Silicon Valley company maintains that
no proposal can win management buy-in until it has been reduced to three
items placed along the sides of a triangle.
You could think of all this as the New Illumination. In many ways we've
become the most visual culture since the High Middle Ages. Still, we
probably don't want to toss out all the achievements of the age of print.
When you move from connected text to bullet items you leave some useful
communicative tools behind--verbs, for example. And as lively as a good
slide show can be, some ideas are better absorbed in a more leisurely,
considered way, with the aid of older technologies like an armchair and a
good reading light.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG is a principal scientist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research
Center and a consulting professor of linguistics at Stanford University.
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