Is powerpoint rocket science?

Edward Tufte is a renowned expert – possible the renowned expert – on the visual presentation of information.  He hates powerpoint almost unreservedly.  His account of how the poor presentation of information contributed to the Columbia space shuttle failure in 2003, drawn from his experience as a consultant to NASA, as well as from the formal investigative reports is compelling reading.  The Columbia failure of course followed the earlier Challenger disaster in 1986 where again, poor design and presentation of information prevented the problem from being acted on.  Tufte’s solution is not to use powerpoint at all:

Serious problems require a serious tool:  written reports.  For nearly all scientific and engineering communication, instead of PowerPoint, the presentation and reporting software should be a word-processing program capable of capturing, editing, and publishing text, tables, data graphics, images and scientific notation.  Replacing PowerPoint with Microsoft Word (or, better, a tool with non-proprietary universal formats) will make presentations and their audiences smarter.  Of course full-screen projected images and videos are necessary; that is the one harmless use of PP.  Meetings should center on concisely written reports on paper, not fragmented bulleted talking points projected up on the wall.

I don’t completely agree with Tufte:  I think powerpoint does have its uses.  Much of what is wrong with it comes down to two factors:

  • bullet points – which are usually a form of comfort blanket for the presenter rather than a means of communication with the audience (and which in practice seem to be much of what Tufte criticises)
  • the confusion of slides to be presented by a speaker with documents to be read by a reader, as I have noted before.

For me, the test of a good set of slides is that it should be incomprehensible in isolation.  If it needs to be comprehensible without a presenter, there’s a strong argument that it shouldn’t be in powerpoint in the first place.  And there are plenty of good examples of the powerful use of powerpoint – or rather of powerful approaches to presentation which involve the use of slides.

But documenting thinking just through a slide pack tempts us to gloss over detail, or to assume robustness and precision when they may not be there.  Diagrams are a critically important part of overall communication – but they are only a part of it. The problem with powerpoint is not that it is evil, but that it is a tool, not a toolbox.