Doug Garnett’s Blog



The Appearance of Meaning: The PowerPoint Discussion

There’s been some excellent discussion about PowerPoint presentations on the web lately as a result of a New York Times article discussing problems the military is finding with PPT. In watching the discussions, I wonder if we aren’t all looking at this wrong.

Many of the comments urge sparsity in slides, they urge extreme creativity with images & quotes, etc. But the military’s problems appear to mirror those Tufte found at NASA and seem to be two fold:

  • They are using PowerPoint to present what should be put into written reports.

  • Bureaucrats have defined PPT formats. At NASA the dictate was six bullets per page, x point font, and no more than 2 lines per bullet. (As Tufte pointed out, this may well have caused both fatal Shuttle accidents.)

Let me suggest we look at this differently. Because there are times when a data dense PPT format is absolutely right and much more valuable than Pictures & Sayings. At other times, data density is death.

Perhaps the real problem is deciding what it is that can be said that has important meaning for the audience.

Early in my career, I was part of a team evaluating large budget computers for purchase by a major aerospace company. At that time, I developed an approach to sales rep presentations that has served me well:

If they bring video, skip the meeting.

Because there’s never communication in the video that is helpful to my team and our challenge.

I found this to be true regardless of the creativity of the video (and they were very well produced videos for the most part). And I find it still true today.

In fact, many of the most carefully constructed PPT’s (whether dense or sparse) fail because they don’t say anything important.

That, of course, is a failure of the presenter – to not know what they’re saying. But here is where PowerPoint (and similar programs) are liable:  Nowhere else can presenters fill so many slides so fast to give the appearance of meaning – and do so without saying anything.

As Stanislaw Lem is reported to have observed “Mud gives the perception of depth”. And nowhere can so much mud be created so quickly as in PowerPoint.

Copyright 2010. Doug Garnett

Categories:   Communication


  • Posted: April 28, 2010 17:25

    Steve Schildwachter

    Doug, this is a great build on the .ppt chatter yesterday. Your comments on my post are worth repeating, so for those interested: Thanks for contributing! Steve