Powerpoint and Analysis

This blog has periodically featured posts on the role of visual devices to improve analytical understanding  –  this NYT article reports on how the US military has become a slave to Powerpoint (and features an interesting slide).

30 replies on “Powerpoint and Analysis”

This article could be read in conjunction with an earlier piece by Edward Tuft (author of the The Visual Presentation of Quantitative Information) who claims that the “popular PowerPoint templates (ready-made designs) usually weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis”.


Edward Tufte is someone who has become a very vocal critic of the PowerPoint mentality.


As someone who occupies a technical position is a large company, I can say that the almost-universal demand from managers is “bullet points” on a set of slides + charts. Sets of “viewgraphs” have replaced structured, written reports.

The key to success is to try to ensure the charts spell out the unmistakeable message. But eschew any hope of subtlety or niceties.

I got ‘helpful advice’ on my powerpoint presentations lately from a co-worker after he came out of a coma that I inducted him into.

He introduced me to prezi, a package that allows one depth in presenations, as opposed to ppoint blinking!

Check out http://www.prezi.com
A good example is this

I think it allows the eye to stay interested in the medium in a way that ppoint doesnt. I intend to switch over but am unsure what I want exactly from it so am waiting for my muse to arrive…

Well worth checking out

Here is what the Columbia Space Shuttle Accident Investigation Board said about the use of PowerPoint in the context of a highly critical assessment of one particular critically important slide:

“At many points during its investigation, the Board was surprised to receive similar presentation slides from NASA officials in place of technical reports. The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA.”

Download report from http://caib.nasa.gov/news/report/pdf/vol1/full/caib_report_volume1.pdf
and search for Powerpoint.

The article — shockingly — is almost 100 pc accurate. When I was a Battle Captain in Baghdad with the 82nd Airborne, I was a PowerPoint Ranger. Mind-numbing doesn’t even begin to describe it.

“Captain… could the explosion icons be a bit more orange?”

I’d have rather been out in Baghdad getting shot at than sit at a desk doing .ppt 12 hours a day.

A nice irony in the General decrying the use of bullets. Reminds me of Sinn Fein complaining about the use of rubber bullets.
Closer to home, there is another issue: how presentations are used in the public sector. I have heard informally, and I don’t know if it is true, that since the FOI Act was introduced, civil servants are less likely to produce memos since they would be covered by the act and hence could reveal inconvenient changes in thinking. Instead, our friend Powerpoint is used much more so there is less of a paper-trail.

The phrase “powerpoint makes you stupid” should be attributed to its originator Edward Tufte rather than the US general quoted – this misattribution is the fault of the NYTimes reporter not the US general quoted.

Another great moment in the life of powerpoint was Richard Feynman’s critique of the safety programme of the disastrous US Challenger mission. As Edward Tufte noted during the follow-up analysis of the disaster (Feynman was involved as a member of the congressionally-appointed commission), to some extent the Challenger flight safety programme was managed via powerpoint slides!

The more time the US mil. spends on PowerPoint, the less time they can spend on murdering people. Win/Win!

Somebody should mock up a ppt file on that relationship. Like this: http://graphjam.com/

Anyone want to bet on the percentage of “reports” commissioned by Dept of Finance on the banking crisis from consulting firms that were delivered as PPTs?

Malcolm Gladwell referred to Powerpoint as being useless/pointless application when he spoke in Dublin recently. I didn’t realise it was positively dangerous!

You’ve got the relationship all backwards. Having to do so much .ppt made me want to murder MORE people. Psh, civilians…

One could argue that all powerpoint overuse does is format thought processes that does/may limit the creative process of a person or institution.
It is when knowledge assimilation or analysis becomes dependent on on a powerpoint based format that problems occur?

It may be more a reflection on the problems of institutionalisation, this example the US armed services, than powerpoint?

Didnt read the Tufte article!
The man wanted money for his thoughts!

@ All: Nothing new here. I recall (though I cannot finger the reference) a pithy review of PP, perhaps 10 years ago. Even then it was considered a ‘croc’ and being badly misused (its only suitable for Boardrooms).

Try giving a talk without PP: now your audience DOES have to pay attention. You retain editorial control.

B Peter

@Brian Flanagan – the mention of powerpoint in the Columbia disaster report is a consequence of the Challenger disaster and its aftermath. By the time of the Columbia disaster (years after the Challenger disaster) NASA was aware that safety planning should not use powerpoint (since it was mentioned after Challenger happened) but they still found evidence for this occurring. Space travel it turns out was always very dangerous but the US was relatively lucky in the early years.

I used to think that PP=’dumbing down’ but then I discovered that the reason so many people I worked with issued PP slides instead of detailed/technical reports on anything was actually a reflection of the depth of their knowledge 🙁

I am currently spending some ‘time in academia’ (until September anyway) and I have been utterly astonished at the vastly different levels of PP proficiency between individual lecturers. There is one particular guy …. I couldn’t understand why I always fell asleep when he was lecturing and yet always stayed awake for everyone else. I think I now know.

@Al – is Prezi a serious alternative to PP? I will check out your examples when I get time.

Does anyone know of any others?

You should read what Thomas Ricks has to say about the US Military, the DOD and the State Department and their use of Powerpoint in his book “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq”.

Somehow I don’t think pre-invasion strategy, COIN strategy and tactics can be portrayed on a couple of .ppt slides

@ Joseph

I think that prezi is one of the potential future heirs of ppt.
I highly recommend giving it a look.

However, I have the question of whether it constitutes educational progress?

While a presenter does have an obligation to do so in a fashion and through mediums that allow systematic digestable ‘units’ of learning
(uhh- eduspeak)

It is equally important to point out that a student has the responcability to practise active listening etc, to the point where listening to the most boring lecturer possible introduces a challenge to practise ones listening skills.

We are in danger of ignoring these skills in seeking to facilitate learners. Such a basic research skill must wade through emotion as well and knowledge


I don’t think Prezi solves any of the problems that powerpoint has. As far as I can tell, all Prezi offers that powerpoint doesn’t is the flashy zoom feature. But basically that’s just another transition: nobody is going to be able to look at the synoptic whole and make anything of it.

Better just to drop slideware altogether.

What I like about prezi is that the sequencing of the information flows in a way not dissimilar to a visual display from a computer game or chill out video, etc. I have noticed that students seem to auto focus onto it and follow it passively. Whereas ppt. seems to disrupt that state of consciousness with a static screen that flicks through pages of info.
Over exposure to any method will result in mental disinterest.
Horses for courses?

I was asked to give a talk once and later read of a bitchy review of my speech on the Interweb. The complaint? I hadn’t used Powerpoint……

@ Joseph: PP is a very useful piece of software – but like many others it can become badly misused. Please do not shy away from PP. Just use it effectively. Can be done. Needs lots of cognitive skill.

You bring up an interesting point about PP users. I used to ‘show’ people how to use PP (non-educators), but most were technically challenged, not in respect of actually using the software to produce slides, rather to produce slides that would, as it said on the packet, Point-with-Power! In essence, they were unable to prepare a ‘storyboard’ and then distil out the key concepts for inclusion in a PP slide.

When the ‘educators’ got to use PP they went completely off the wall with it. The majority of educational PP presentations are dreadful. Mind you, I have come across the rare exception: presentations of exceptional quality. I guess the ‘educators’ were never taught to teach.

That ‘military’ slide is pure brilliance. Really! Try the Boehringer-Mannheim chart of metabolic pathways. Some of these slides should be in visual arts museums.

B Peter

ps: Try this test:

The slide goes up, you must be able to read it, at normal reading speed, in not more than 30 secs. Also, it should have six or less ‘chunks’ of data. If the slide fails this test – its junk.


@ Brian Woods
That test is a big part of the problem: the reduction of any complex piece of information into small, bite size chunks of data, which get shoved down student’s throats-if the slide passes the test, it might just be junk too!

In many ways transparencies held an advantage. They were a pain to produce, so you had to be sure about what you wanted on them. They were poor quality, so you had to be simple. You could cover the next bit with a page so you could see what you were moving on to, but your audience could not – avoiding the click through mutter “already covered that”.

I’ve gone back to whiteboard and pen for simple stuff, and directly projecting from textbooks from the complex. My audience photo it with their phones when we’ve constructed our diagrams and points.

It is not so much that powerpoint makes you stupid, as that simplification makes you simple…

@ Ernie
upon further deliberation, I have to disagree with you on Prezi.
It allows alot of interlinkage between the aggregates.

@ Brian Woods
You get hired as a subject matter expert!
You are then expected to become a delivery expert!!
But you will end up striking a personal balance between them.
Which matters more: the matter or the delivery.

I am begining to think that learning resources are becoming over rated and education needs to be more primal.

Students be required to do more groundwork themselves. Our saturation dissolves their initiative.

Learning tastes alot better when you killed it and cooked it yourself rather than being handed it!!

Schools train pupils not to think at all. They are there to conform.

Home schooling is regarded as a mental illness in Germany. Schooling is designed to rearrange thinking and thereby destroy innovation and difference. It is very “important” to have a culture within an organization.

A culture. One way of thinking. This is appropriate to a military organization. But to business? Face to face communication is expensive. Wasting it by using ppt or other methods should be reduced, but what are the presenters actually presenting at these gatherings?

Groupthink caused the Irish land madness and loan inflation. A better means of accomplishing that? IBM is committed to outsourcing. Communications will be more important than ever. It will shape “organizations”. FtF is really limited to fewer than ten people, although some say 15.

@ All: Thanks for your comments. Unfortunately ye are kicking over a real hornets nest!

eg. “Which matters more: the matter or the delivery.” Gritty question.

“Students be required to do more groundwork themselves” Absolutely!

If you want to fly a plane, you hire a pilot – one qualified to fly the aircraft, not a pilot qualified to quide a ship in/out of port! They are both very qualified persons – but NOT the same!

We could be here ’till Doomsday on this one. Cheers.

Brian P

Agreed, only a few more posts and then we’ll bury it!!

Your pilot analogy might not perfectly fit.
If you want a tour guide, they may have to use transportation aids.
Sometimes that requires a driver. Maybe lecturers could have IT drivers for each lecture????

I used to have a boss who thought that a trained educator could teach anything, and this was in a place that provided skill based training.
Maybe he took the Church as his model???

I dont disagree with most of what you say.
However, taking limited time and effort available, and the contingencies of modern academia, I have to say that you can have some of both (Subject expertise, Presentation expertise) but not ‘all’ of both!

If your course work doesnt change for say 10 years, then it allows me the oppurtunity to improve each year in expertise and presentation.

But if you are teaching new course work every 2 years then you do not have the repeatability factor that allows the improvement.
Now if you are teaching a new course every year….

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