Sunday, September 28, 2014

What's so Wrong With PowerPoint?

I was looking for a social media site where I could share presentations, and a colleague suggested SlideShare. It's a very nice looking site, and it seems to serve a large community. I haven't explored the site thoroughly, but I have viewed a number of the slideshows, and they are either PowerPoint-type or PDF presentations.

I am often bored or even annoyed by most PowerPoint (PP) presentations. In response to my colleague, though, I pointed out that I wasn't sure if the problem with PP was the program itself or just how it is used. As I put it, "I'm no Powerpoint fan, but I know it's because so many PP presentations are terrible! No CARP awareness [see below], no narrative or even logical arc. I rarely use it, so I haven't learned the ins and outs. I did meet a chemistry teacher from Korea who had done some amazing things with PP, though."

Heaven knows we have all suffered through poorly designed PP presentations. Another colleague sent me a link to an essay by Edward R Tufte (2006) entitled "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint." He makes a strenuous argument against the underlying approach of PP, explaining how that approach corrupts the presentation of analytical data. PP is inherently flawed - it is PP's fault!

On the other hand, there is a well-known approach to the design of visual presentations based on four principles: Contrast, Arrangement, Repetition, and Proximity (or CARP, for short). These are the principles often violated in PP presentations, and for which PP can't be faulted (though Tufte argues that PP is almost designed to enable these violations).

I already use a presentation tool every day in my classes - SmartNotebook, which is part of the software suite that accompanies Smartboards. I don't think I'm doing anything with SmartNotebook that I couldn't do with PP, but it feels more intuitive and responsive to what I'm doing in my classroom. PP always feels static (though I still think about that chemistry teacher from Korea!)

I haven't yet played with Prezi - I guess I should try, because it seems to be a good alternative to PP. I also want to play with the screen-capture tool Jing, and see if I can record presentations and share them on YouTube. Prezi and SmartNotebook also have archives for sharing presentations.

Related links:

E R Tufte's essay (PDF)
a Prezi presentation about CARP!
Ironically enough, a SlideShare presentation on "Death by PowerPoint."
An article in PC World entitled "Anything but PowerPoint." (The main complaint here seems to be that PP presentations are boring. Most of the alternatives offered are just variations on PP.)


Tufte, E. R. (2006). The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within, (2nd ed.) Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.

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