PowerPoint can kill

June 14, 2012
To most engineers, the idea of using graphs or models to convey concepts comes as second nature. In many cases, these representations get shared through a PowerPoint presentation

To most engineers, the idea of using graphs or models to convey concepts comes as second nature. In many cases, these representations get shared through a PowerPoint presentation. You might think that a presentation tool like PowerPoint couldn’t get you into much hot water — at worst, it might inflict acute boredom on colleagues. But taking PowerPoint lightly is particularly dangerous for engineers.

So warns Franck Frommer, who recently wrote a book (How Power- Point Makes You Stupid) about PowerPoint’s downside. For instance, take the idea of expressing concepts in a PowerPoint chart. “Diagrams kill thought!” cautions one business veteran. She explains that drawings are okay for detailing processes, circuits, and other well-defined relationships. But they are a terrible way of expressing anything dynamic such as a strategy. Her point was diagrams are prone to lull viewers into accepting a static and oversimplified outlook on problems that are inherently mobile and changing.

Bad PowerPoint even played a role in the Columbia Shuttle disaster. After Columbia broke up reentering the atmosphere in 2003, a series of NASA-prepared slides about the shuttle came under intense scrutiny. All these slides were prepared using PowerPoint. Data-visualization pioneer Edward Tufte took issue with one in particular that, he said, portrayed a “festival of bureaucratic hyperrationalism.” Among the problems he noted was that the author had used six different levels of text to arrange and classify 11 phrases. The primary information in the slide got relegated to small print several layers down.

What is troubling about the NASA example is that PowerPoint itself encourages such problems through its built-in templates. The software imposes what Tufte calls a summary style that can be confusing and lets users prepare slides using letter fonts that are inappropriate for the subject at hand. In the case of the Columbia slide, for example, the author had used a “pitch-style typography” that tended to belie the seriousness of foam damaging the heat shield.

Organizations also have a tendency to let PowerPoint slide decks substitute for more-detailed forms of technical communication. Frommer points out that the board investigating Columbia criticized NASA on this point as well, saying that the use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers illustrated problematic methods of technical communication at the Agency.

Many of the problems arising from PowerPoint come from the misuse of bullet points, especially because this practice leaves out the logical connections that give the points meaning in the first place. Worse, bullet points can be a screen hiding a “certain intellectual laziness” on the part of users who never bothered to think out the connections, says Frommer.

There are, in fact, a few individuals who have mastered PowerPoint. One in particular was Apple’s late great Steve Jobs, Frommer claims. You’d never see cornball images, poorly formed ideas, or a font festival in a Jobs slide deck. His slides were always simple, contained a wellorganized argument, and used analogies to make numbers in the presentation memorable.

But then again, there was only one Steve Jobs.

— Leland Teschler, Editor

© 2012 Penton Media, Inc.

About the Author

Leland Teschler

Lee Teschler served as Editor-in-Chief of Machine Design until 2014. He holds a B.S. Engineering from the University of Michigan; a B.S. Electrical Engineering from the University of Michigan; and an MBA from Cleveland State University. Prior to joining Penton, Lee worked as a Communications design engineer for the U.S. Government.

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