It seems I’m not the only one with an axe to grind about Powerpoint presentations. A reader of The Legal Soapbox sent me a link to the following website, where Edward Tufte has undertaken a cognitive study of Powerpoint presentations and their flaws.
I had a look at Mr Tufte’s sample essay, Powerpoint does Rocket Science. It was very interesting, as it traces some of the mistakes NASA made in the 2003 Spaceshuttle Colombia disaster to the use made by spaceshuttle engineers of Powerpoint presentations to present their findings. As his examples show, the executive summary headline in one slide was misleading (suggesting that there was not a problem), but when one worked through the many levels of bullets right down to the final bullet, it seemed that there was a problem. When management was looking through the slide presentation, of course their attention was drawn to the executive summary headline, not the information dangling in the bottom bullet point. The hierarchical nature of the bullets meant that the information presented was fragmented and incoherent (and the important details were in small font at the bottom of the heap).
Of course, Powerpoint is useful in some circumstances. Presently, I use it to put up case citations, sections of legislation, headings for the next section of my lecture and diagrams of factual scenarios (which can be cut and pasted into one’s lecture notes). It saves me writing headings and citations on the board, for which I am eternally grateful.
But the auto-formatting is an absolute pain, and sometimes I find myself having to resist the temptation alter information just so that I can fit it all on one slide. Fortunately, I am very good at getting around auto-formatting (and that horrible little Microsoft paperclip who comes up to “help” you). I find it very irritating also that Powerpoint keeps trying to force you to put a heading on each slide – I either delete that heading box, or I just put “Contracts (…cont)”. If my points under one heading need to spill over onto subsequent slides, so be it, I’m not going to abbreviate them into oblivion.
Of course, I’m not involved in a life-or-death situation like the NASA engineers; that whole scenario horrifies me. Sometimes computers can make communication much better; but sometimes they can stultify it. You’ve got to be careful how you use the tools you’re given.