PowerPoint and the Pursuit of Wisdom – part 1

Would Abraham Lincoln have used PowerPoint at Gettysburg?

During my graduate studies in Environmental Engineering, I spent innumerable hours in seminars listening to professors and their students make presentations about the research.  Like most presentations in any context these days – business, education, government, etc – the medium used was always PowerPoint (PPT).  Normally these presentations were difficult to follow, leaving the audience overwhelmed with information, and virtually no discussion followed during the Q&A because no one except other professors asked questions (I love asking questions, but usually my mind could not formulate a clear, thoughtful question afterwards).  Over time I began to wonder if the medium itself was part of the problem and starting questioning the effects of PPT presentations on cognition.

Anyone who has ever been lulled to mental numbness during a PPT presentation (an experience captured in a popular phrase “Death by PowerPoint”) has experienced these effects.  Fortunately, there is more and more public debate and discourse about how PPT affects the mind.  This week an article about its use in the U.S. military was published in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/27/world/27powerpoint.html).  It documents the widespread use of  PPT especially in presentations that inform high-level decision making, with many junior officers spending most of their time preparing slides.  A number of high-level officers have spoken critically of the practice, including Marine Corps general James Mattis, the Joint Forces commander in Afghanistan, who stated bluntly, “PowerPoint makes us stupid.”  Many of us have sensed the stultifying effects of PPT.  How can it stunt the mind?

Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster followed Mattis’ claim arguing that the bulleted lists that fill the presentation slides conceal the complex web of political, economic, and ethnic forces that must be accounted for to understand military conflicts.  By reducing complex realities to a disconnected series of simplistic ‘points,’ such presentations, military commanders agree, discourage discussion and critical thinking, and weaken thoughtful decision making.  This problem is exacerbated when complex data requiring sophisticated analysis is involved.  Graphical communications expert, and author of an essay “Powerpoint is Evil: Power Corrupts; Powerpoint Corrupts Absolutely,” Edward Tufte observes:

“When information is stacked in time [which happens when data is spread out over multiple PPT slides], it is difficult to understand context and evaluate relationships. Visual reasoning usually works more effectively when relevant information is shown side by side. Often, the more intense the detail, the greater the clarity and understanding.”

Tufte argues that because the “data density” of Powerpoint software is so low (the amount of information permissible by the medium per slide), complex information must be divided over many slides.  Because the mind cannot hold that much information at once, one cannot compare and contrast the information (the essence of analysis), say on slide 8, with the information on slide 2. Consequently, it is difficult to see important relationships in the data.  He shows in this essay how the Boeing engineers missed important connections in a PPT presentation that was used in a decision-making meeting about how to respond to the wing damage on the Columbia space shuttle (which, as you remember, exploded during re-entry).

Christians should take such arguments seriously and avoid, and help others to avoid, the pitfalls of Powerpoint.  The book of Proverbs teaches us about the value of wisdom and understanding and calls us to pursue it above all else.  In my next post on this topic, I will argue how the PPT presentation culture that surrounds us inhibits our quest for wisdom.

In the meantime, check out this hilarious parody of the use bullet point presentations for the Gettysburg Address:

http://www.cs.berkeley.edu/~russell/gettysburg/sld001.htm

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4 comments on “PowerPoint and the Pursuit of Wisdom – part 1

  1. Jason says:

    Wow-you really don’t like PPT. I used the medium as a weapons instructor in the military and it worked for me. Before our practical application and live fire, I always gave a 2 hours class on basic nomenclature, operation, and safety surrounding the M2 .50cal heavy machine gun. My PPTs were a big hit.

    I am attributing the success of my PPTs to the lack of complex data that required deep analysis on my slides. You seem to focus on the problem with PPT when trying to convey lots of info…can you address using PPT for simple presentations? Thanks.

    • I believe that some uses of PPT are better than others. As a mere slide project tool used to display simple visuals that enhance presentations I think it can be very useful. I was just watching a Truth Project lesson today. The teacher uses PPT to diagram simple relationships, display quotes and Scripture, and it works great – you would hardly recognize it as PPT. He does the hard work of making connections between ideas and construction a logical progression by what he says; the slides are use sparingly and only when they enhance what he is saying.

      The problems come when the PPT becomes the presentation instead of a supplement to the presentation, especially when the presentation deals with complex ideas and/or data. So I do not reject PPT per se. What I reject is the way the medium lends itself to disjointed, simplistic communication and the loss of meaning and wisdom that accompanies that. When a complex topic is distilled to bulleted lists, or when complex data reduced to mindless graphs that can only display a small amount of data at a time, the presentation obscures meaning and conveys an illusion of understanding. When a communicator builds a presentation using sound principles of organization and rhetoric, and uses PPT as a slide device to add relevant visual elements, he is not distorting truth or misleading his listener into superficial understanding.

  2. Adam says:

    This clip (especially its conclusion) is relevant to your interests: http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-april-29-2010/afghanistan-stability-chart.

  3. I love it, especially the Star Wars clip! The humor of this is inline with the Gettysburg address parody. There is something about this medium that denudes the richness of communication and defies the principles of rhetoric that I am trying to get my finger on. Thanks!

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