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Now presenting….

(Warning: this blog entry is slightly nonlinear. If you have trouble with nonlinear thinking, hire some people who do not – they will “get you there” MUCH faster!) :-)

If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” – Abraham Maslow

A good carpenter does not blame his tools.” – adage

I am no friend of PowerPoint presentations. :-)

So, when I saw a blog entry entitled “Why we hate PowerPoints — and how to fix them” by Nancy Duarte, CEO of Duarte Design (a presentation design firm based in Mountain View, CA – a city where I spent over five years of my employment for two companies in roughly the same set of buildings), I was intrigued! I may have found a blog that I should add to my reading list!

According to Wikipedia, the original program:

“…was created by Dennis Austin and Thomas Rudkin of Forethought, Inc.. Originally designed for the Macintosh computer, the initial release was called “Presenter”. In 1987, it was renamed to “PowerPoint” due to problems with trademarks, the idea for the name coming from Robert Gaskins. In August of the same year, Forethought was bought by Microsoft for $14 million USD ($26.8 million in present-day terms), and became Microsoft’s Graphics Business Unit, which continued to further develop the software.

PowerPoint changed significantly with PowerPoint 97. Prior to PowerPoint 97, presentations were linear, always proceeding from one slide to the next. PowerPoint 97 incorporated the Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) language, underlying all macro generation in Office 97, which allowed users to invoke pre-defined transitions and effects in a non-linear movie-like style without having to learn programming (or even having to be aware of the existence of VBA).”

Don’t even get me STARTED on Visual Basic! :-) I have received enough tech support calls in my life!

So, like so many of Microsoft’s “creative ideas,” :-) (Microsoft Word began as “Multi-Tool Word” for the Xenix [Unix variety] operating system that Microsoft licensed from AT&T; MS-DOS began as QDOS [Quick and Dirty Operating System], :-) also known as 86-DOS, from Seattle Computer Products, for which Microsoft purchased the rights in order to fulfill an order from IBM), PowerPoint was purchased from someone else!

Enough background! Nancy Duarte’s article discusses the strange case of Colonel Lawrence Sellin, a Special Forces officer, stationed in Afganistan, who was FIRED from his post at NATO’s International Security Assistance Force after writing an essay for UPI in which “he voiced his frustration about PowerPoint-obsessed officers who spend more time worrying about font size and bullet points than actual bullets.:-) Duarte’s article reproduces the infamously incomprehensible “spaghetti slide” (Note added October 18, 2010: The “spaghetti slide” reminds me of an “organizational chart” for one company that employed me and used “matrix management.” If you cannot follow a clear chain of responsibility in YOUR company’s “org chart,” or if you hear the phrase “matrix management,” GET THE HECK OUT! Your “organization” doesn’t know what it is doing! :-) ) and mentions the New York Times article, “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint,” The New York Times quotes two military commanders:

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps, the Joint Forces commander, said this month at a military conference in North Carolina. (He spoke without PowerPoint.) Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat.

“It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

I find myself agreeing with these generals (although SOME people may have been stupid BEFORE using PowerPoint! :-) ). Military people are quite often Myers-Briggs STJ (sensing-thinking-judging) types who actually drink in enough data to use in their thinking and planning. Most of my disagreements have been with decisions made by corporate NTJ (intuitive-thinking-judging) types who often “jump to conclusions” without taking in much data at all (and without much thinking at all! :-) ) and take actions based on preconceived ideas in their heads. I worked for SEVERAL of these folks, who thought that they were smarter than they actually are, and who tolerated no objective criticism of their presentations.  These latter folks often quote “Maslow’s Hammer” without understanding it at all (and without crediting Maslow). (I also worked for some NTJs who overcame their natural tendencies and managed to take in data and ideas.)

Remember, Maslow ALSO said:

“Dispassionate objectivity is itself a passion, for the real and for the truth.”

and

“The neurosis in which the search for safety takes its clearest form is in the compulsive-obsessive neurosis. Compulsive-obsessive to frantically order and stabilize the world so that no unmanageable, unexpected or unfamiliar dangers will ever appear.”

(Note added October 17, 2010: An afterthought – “Self-actualization” is not just for the Myers-Briggs “thinking-judging” personality types. It is for EVERYONE! Please remember that when you get the urge to hold somebody “down.” Some of my past managers could “manage with one hand” because they had to use the other hand to hold their people down.)

Duarte seems to agree with the generals, too. She cites Edward Tufte‘s article about the Shuttle disaster, “PowerPoint Does Rocket Science: Assessing the Quality and Credibility of Technical Reports,” in which NASA officials came away from PowerPoint-driven briefings by Boeing engineers with an overly optimistic view of the situation, in part as a result of hard-to-understand slides overloaded with bullet points. Tufte notes that “every single text-slide uses bullet-outlines with 4 to 6 levels of hierarchy. Then another multi-level list, another bureaucracy of bullets, starts afresh for a new slide.”

Clearly, PowerPoint is a “deadly weapon” in the hands of the wrong people.

Duarte’s article says that PowerPoint is not inherently bad (I agree. “Confining,” but not “bad…” :-) ) and that in truth, most PowerPoint presentations are “poorly constructed and instantly forgettable.” She also says that presentations are important because they “decide elections, military strategies and multibillion-dollar business deals; they educate our children and they spread the ideas that shape society’s most important goals and directives.”

Duarte notes that we are a distracted society, and that the audience for your presentation is likely playing (in an “attention-deficit-sort-of-way”) with their electronic devices. Her conclusion about effective presentations:

“The presentations that work are not the ones with the most data or the most elaborate charts and graphs; the winners are those with the most compelling and convincing narratives.”

Essentially… good storytelling (1), something that humans have used for communication for likely millions of years. Duarte also cites statistics on functional illiteracy, but literacy is not a criterion for success in American corporate “cultures,” which have become self-constructed “wildlife preserves” for “cloned” human personality types that might not actually survive very well in the “real world.” (Note added November 6, 2010: … as the result of not taking in enough data and jumping to the wrong conclusions.)

So, what are my thoughts about the impact of the PowerPoint tool in presentations?

  1. Like the good carpenter, who does not blame his tools, the presenter is ultimately responsible for the quality, content, and effectiveness of the presentation. An incompetent presenter tends to create ineffective (or worse) presentations.
  2. Like scientists who lived before the microscope and had to GUESS at the causes of many mysterious diseases, we are all limited by the tools that exist for us. Our tools DO impose limitations on what we can do, HOW we do it, how WELL we do it, and even worse, how we THINK about it.
  3. I have seen recommendations for ONE concept/idea per page in a slide presentation and a maximum of THREE bullet points supporting that one concept. Even so, I have worked for managers who wrote virtual “books” :-) in PowerPoint! Essentially, they were using Maslow’s Hammer to drive screws.
  4. I think that it is potentially dangerous to a society to standardize on a particular presentation tool in educating children, because, as the result of familiarity, they will continue to use that tool in preference to other tools later in their lives. This tendency will tend to make each problem that they encounter look like “a nail.”

Let’s not hamper the ability of our children to make the creative decisions that may ultimately save our species and others, by giving them a single tool.

-Bill at

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