PowerPoint’s Inherent Flaw

I have long wondered why business executives making serious decisions accept, even demand, such an imprecise and incomplete means of communication as a PowerPoint presentation. And I am not alone in that view. In fact visual information guru Edwin Tufte is even more critical:

Imagine a widely used and expensive prescription drug that promised to make us beautiful but didn’t. Instead the drug had frequent, serious side effects: It induced stupidity, turned everyone into bores, wasted time, and degraded the quality and credibility of communication. These side effects would rightly lead to a worldwide product recall.

Yet slideware -computer programs for presentations -is everywhere: in corporate America, in government bureaucracies, even in our schools. Several hundred million copies of Microsoft PowerPoint are churning out trillions of slides each year. Slideware may help speakers 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.

Now you can argue that Tufte is an aesthete, that business isn’t so complicated that much is lost by dumbing down. And if you really care about communications, perhaps you use a slide program other than PowerPoint, right?

Wrong. It turns out that the whole notion of show-and-tell, at least for substantive communication, is hopelessly flawed. Researchers at the University of New South Wales have discovered that presenting visual information while talking overloads the recipient. He understands less well than if he were presented with either a lecture or a written document.

Some business leaders seem to have intuited this limitation and adapted accordingly. Steve Jobs, at his MacWorld presentations, spends most of the time lecturing against a dark background, using slides sparingly to highlight key points (and no, his style isn’t a deliberate effort to diss PowerPoint. The Mac has a slide program too).

The University of NSW team predicts the death of PowerPoint. But its very durability and ubiquity despite what would seem to be a fatal and inherent flaw, points to another conclusion: business meetings aren’t about communicating. They are about obfuscation and dominance.

Remember, the use of visual-driven presentations (as opposed to simply talking) was popularized by consulting firms and investment banks that would use printed “books” or “decks.” For an investment bank, it might be pages of various financial analyses presented during a sales pitch; for a consulting firm, a precursor to a PowerPoint document, a combination of narrative, text charts, and visuals, organized in a “storyline.” McKinsey for many years had a design expert, an in-house Tufte, in charge of the firms’ presentation style.

Now this innovation, it turns out, played into the hands of the professionals. Relying on a tool that leaves the audience a little addle-brained is a perfect way to engineer assent. It somewhat levels the playing field when talking to an executive team. In addition, there are only so many questions you can ask about how charts were derived before you start looking either pedantic or stupid.

So now we have a new culprit for many corporate failings, for example, excessive executive pay. It isn’t weak-kneed boards. It’s the comp consultants use of PowerPoint. Those directors didn’t have a chance.

From the Sydney Morning Herald:

If you have ever wondered why your eyes start glazing over as you read those dot points on the screen, as the same words are being spoken, take heart in knowing there is a scientific explanation.

It is more difficult to process information if it is coming at you in the written and spoken form at the same time.

The Australian researchers who made the findings may have pronounced the death of the PowerPoint presentation….

Pioneered at the University of NSW, the research shows the human brain processes and retains more information if it is digested in either its verbal or written form, but not both at the same time.

It also questions the wisdom of centuries-old habits, such as reading along with Bible passages, at the same time they are being read aloud in church. More of the passages would be understood and retained, the researchers suggest, if heard or read separately.

The findings show there are limits on the brain’s capacity to process and retain information in short-term memory.

John Sweller, from the university’s faculty of education, developed the “cognitive load theory”.

“The use of the PowerPoint presentation has been a disaster,” Professor Sweller said. “It should be ditched.”

“It is effective to speak to a diagram, because it presents information in a different form. But it is not effective to speak the same words that are written, because it is putting too much load on the mind and decreases your ability to understand what is being presented.”….

The working memory was only effective in juggling two or three tasks at the same time, retaining them for a few seconds. When too many mental tasks were taken on some things were forgotten.

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