Presentation Skills: Powerpoint Slides – A Cautionary Tale

The following article, by Dr Marc Faber, renowned contrarian investor and writer of The Gloom, Boom and Doom report, maps the history of Powerpoint, its original intended use and its current pitfalls. He highlights the solution in the second last paragraph, with which I couldn’t agree more!! Powerpoint is a visual aid designed to back you up. You are the presentation, it is the support – not the other way around 🙂


In 2003, Edward Tufte wrote a very interesting article for ‘Wired’ entitled “Power Corrupts, PowerPoint Corrupts Absolutely”, ( Tufte: “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. 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.

Presentations at companies such as IBM and in the military used bullet lists shown by overhead projectors. But the format has become ubiquitous under PowerPoint, which was created in 1984 and later acquired by Microsoft. PowerPoint’s pushy style seeks to set up a speaker’s dominance over the audience. The speaker, after all, is making power points with bullets to followers. Could any metaphor be worse?

Particularly disturbing is the adoption of the PowerPoint cognitive style in our schools. Rather than learning to write a report using sentences, children are being taught how to formulate client pitches and infomercials. Elementary school PowerPoint exercises (as seen in teach guides and in student work posted on the Internet) typically consists of 10 to 20 words and a piece of clip art on each slide in a presentation of 3-6 slides – a total of perhaps 80 words (15 seconds of silent reading) for a week of work. Students would be better off if the schools simply closed down on those days and everyone went to the Exploratorium or wrote an illustrated essay explaining something. In a business setting, a PowerPoint slide typically shows 40 words, which is about eight seconds’ worth of silent reading material. With so little information per slide, many, many slides are needed. Audiences consequently endure a relentless sequentiality, one damn slide after another.

Presentations largely stand or fall on the quality, relevance, and integrity of the content. If your numbers are boring, then you’ve got the wrong numbers. If your words or images are not on point, making them dance in colour won’t make them relevant. Audience boredom is usually a content failure, not a decoration failure. AT a minimum, a presentation format should do no harm. Yet the PowerPoint style routinely disrupts, dominates, and trivialises content.

The practical conclusions area clear. PowerPoint is a competent slide manager and projector. But rather than supplementing a presentation, it has become a substitute for it. Such misuse ignores the most important rule of speaking: Respect your audience.

According to Lucy Kellaway (Financial Times, July 17, 2011), there is an Anti Power Point Party, which estimates that Europe wastes 110 Billion Euros a year from people sitting through dull presentations. She notes “I suspect the true figure is even worse, as this ignores the secondary effects. PowerPoint must be the least enjoyable way of wasting time there is; a heavy slideshow can leave one feeling grumpy and passive and in no frame of mind for proper work. Worse, it lowers the quality of discussion and leads to bad decisions. It reduces subtle ideas to bullet points, while it encourages you to pad out a presentation with irrelevant data because cutting and pasting is far too easy.”

I do not share in all aspects, Tufte’s and Kellaway’s negative views about PowerPoint. If slides only contain bullet points, which the speaker then reads – it surely disrupts and trivializes content. However, if the slides supplement a presentation and the objective is to facilitate the audience’s understanding of the content, PowerPoint can be a very useful tool. Say in a presentation, I am interested to discuss the geopolitics of Central Asia. Since most people are likely to have no clue about the geography of the region, the visual display of a map is certainly useful and is welcome to the audience.

There are two issues I fully agree with Tufte/Kellaway. The adoption of the PowerPoint cognitive style in schools actually discourages children from learning to write a report using sentences and from reading entire cohesive texts and understanding the content. I would say the same about multiple-choice questions. I suppose this is why so many people are functionally illiterate. The other point I agree with is that enormous money goes to waste every year “from people sitting through dull presentations”. But this would happen with or without the application of PowerPoint.

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