PowerPoint and the Pursuit of Wisdom – part 2

Before I resume a critique of PowerPoint (PPT)-centered communication, I would like to add a caveat about what I believe are beneficial uses of the tool.  As a simple slide-projection tool PPT can be very helpful.  Displaying pictures and videos, key quotations, and even basic visual diagrams to illustrate relationships, are all valid uses.  I have seen PPT slides used effectively, for example, in Focus on the Family’s Truth Project (a worldview training curriculum).  The lessons focus on what the presenter is saying, and he uses visually appealing slides from time to time for the above functions.  The slides are not the center of the presentation, and he does the difficult work of constructing a logically coherent presentation of complex topics.

I believe PPT creates cognitive difficulties for an audience when the slides are the center of the presentation and when it is used to communicate complex ideas and/or data.  By reducing complex ideas into a brief outline or series of bulleted lists, or by breaking apart complex data into dozens of slides, such presentations inhibit the audience from seeing connections and thus encourage low-level thinking as knowledge is packaged into isolated facts.  While PPT is an efficient tool for conveying information, information without understanding leaves people with the illusion of knowledge (and the presenter with the illusion that he has communicated effectively).  Essentially, it is a speaker-centered tool that is not designed, and often not used, out of consideration for the audience.  Edward Tufte writes, “Slideware may help speaker outline their talks, but convenience for the speaker can be punishing to both content and audience.  The standard PowerPoint presentation elevates format over content, betraying an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch…PowerPoint’s pushy style seeks to set up a speaker’s dominance over the audience.”  It is these qualities – the downplaying of content, the disjointedness of data, the disconnecteness of ideas, and the “pushy” salesmenship style – that make PPT-centered communication detrimental to the pursuit of wisdom.

The book of Proverbs personifies wisdom as a woman crying out to mankind to seek and find her (Proverbs 8:10-16):

10 Choose my instruction instead of silver, knowledge rather than choice gold,

11 for wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare with her.

12 “I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence; I possess knowledge and discretion.

13 To fear the LORD is to hate evil;I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech.

14 Counsel and sound judgment are mine; I have understanding and power.

15 By me kings reign and rulers make laws that are just;

16 by me princes govern, and all nobles who rule on earth.

What are some characteristics of wisdom seen in this passage?  First, wisdom is associated with prudence (good judgment especially concerning practical matters) and discretion (freedom to act on one’s judgments).  Second, wisdom is a tool for just governance and thus informs decision making for the common good.  Third, wisdom is antithetical to evil, pride, and perversity:  one can not acquire wisdom without disdain for these things.  Finally, wisdom is priceless and thus should be sought above all other pursuits.

Pastor Tim Keller defines wisdom as “the ability to see how things relate.”  He uses star athletes and brilliant composers to illustrate this quality.  Professional basketball players possess the same knowledge of how to play the game and comparable physical abilities.  The great ones have the ability to see relationships on the court that others do not see (an attribute called “court vision”) and use that insight (discretion) to make plays that hidden from others.  All musicians possess the same knowledge of scales, chords, and music theory (after all there are only 12 notes available to work worth).  The great ones have the ability to relate the notes in beautiful, novel ways that others have not seen.  If wisdom is indeed about having vision for how things are interrelated then communication styles that obscure such relationships and reduce knowledge into unrelated facts and information surely impede the pursuit of wisdom and should be replaced with approaches that help reveal connections.  This is the heart of my concern about PPT-centered communication.

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