PowerPoint is Evil

…. Particularly disturbing is the adoption of the PowerPoint cognitive style in our schools. Rather than learning to write a report using sentences, children are being taught how to formulate client pitches and infomercials. Elementary school PowerPoint exercises (as seen in teacher guides and in student work posted on the Internet) typically consist of 10 to 20 words and a piece of clip art on each slide in a presentation of three to six slides -a total of perhaps 80 words (15 seconds of silent reading) for a week of work. Students would be better off if the schools simply closed down on those days and everyone went to the Exploratorium or wrote an illustrated essay explaining something. …


This is several years old. If you’ve read this before, enter your complaint that this is old in the comment section below. If you’ve not read this before, enter your heartfelt thanks in the comment section below.

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35 thoughts on “PowerPoint is Evil

  1. Damn you Greg, this is soooo old!!! But I hadn’t seen it and find it rather sad and irritating – so thanks for posting it.

    I am rather inclined to agree that PP is evil. It is ridiculous to waste more time on slides that about half the audience isn’t actually going to pay attention to, than you do on your actual lecture/presentation/discussion.

  2. The Exploratorium is fun. 🙂 Being a scientist I’m a bit at odds with the artistic staff though, and maybe I’m paranoid but the place seems to be drifting away from what Frank Oppenheimer wanted; more art than science seems to be creeping in, but it’s been 3 or 4 years since I was last there.

    As for the PowerPoint curse – hell, science conventions are a hundred times worse. 9 minutes to present 10 years’ work. I agree with Tufte though; most people pile in shit to make things look pretty but what they show means nothing. Expectations are so skewed now that people laugh at my very bare slides, not because they are wrong or do not convey relevant information in an effective manner, but because they’re not dolled up. While dolling up may make a manager smile, scientists should be appalled by the dumbing down and expectations of superficial eye candy.
    You can’t always get away with not showing graphs; for example I have over 80,000 gas concentration measurements over an area. It’s much easier for me to create a colored spatial plot to show the gas concentration variation than to attempt to convey that information in a table. However, the point of graphs is to convey information, not to look pretty or to confuse the audience to distract from the fact that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Graphs do have to look pleasing (curse you Excel users!) but *never* use worthless features like 3D bars which are only there to look good and otherwise only distract from the purpose of a graph.

  3. yes it is old, but Tufte makes some very good points about this and many other things. Sadly, where I teach we just had a first round of pre-semester meetings, and one of them was aimed precisely at telling us that we need to “jazz up” our Powerpoint presentations with flashier animations and fonts in order to get and keep the attention of our students. When I mentioned that that didn’t work so well for math or statistics, I was told “You just need to work harder on what information you present.” It’s always good to review your content, but I’ll still present it without PP.

  4. I think the author of the article is full of shit.

    A lot of people make awful presentations. Fine, that’s not power points’ fault. Have you been to a poster session recently? Same damn problem. Yeah, endless bullet points are lazy, but chastising the use of few words is simply wrongheaded. It is much better for a slide to have hardly any text, which should only convey the main point of the slide and necessary labels, anyway. Everything else should be figures that are designed to illustrate important principles you want to explain. This approach, of course, also requires the presenter to think very carefully about what they are going to say about each slide. The problem is that people are not being taught how to use power point effectively, it doesn’t lie in the software itself.

    And just because power point is becoming part of the curriculum doesn’t mean kids still don’t write reports with real sentences and stuff.

    MadScientist, I am genuinely surprised anyone would find your minimalist slides comical. Most people I know simply find them elegant and understandable.

  5. Tufte is a douche. I went to one of his seminars. I bet he’d blame the Holocaust on PowerPoint if he thought he could get away with it.

  6. Just about got it, aside from the last one.

    I would say his overall message is wrong. He is spot on about the fact that people make awful presentations and does a good job describing them. But power point doesn’t result in awful presentations; bad teaching does.

    Just because bullets are one slide option does not mean it should be used often, or at all. There’s also the slide layout with title text and blank space for illustrations–that should probably be about 90% of the slides.

  7. I often do not know whether Greg has his tongue in his cheek (what did we do before emoticons?) But I think he had it about right in his dot points.
    The real requirement of those who want to defend the pre-Powerpoint style is that there be some measure of how effective the comprehension was when people simply spoke great chunks of text. Unless you speak as well as the Gettysberg Address, it probably does not sink in. And how long is the Gettysberg Address? Much shorter than a standard lecture/presentation.
    Of course there will be Macolytes who think that Powerpoint is evil because it is generally regarded as Bill Gates’s big mistake–it works. 🙂

  8. Some companies (Sun was one of them, I think) deny their staff the use of Powerpoint because it’s a waste of time.

    Further, Powerpoint and, even more so, Excel are black holes for corporate information. Data easily get obsolete or lost in those files which often enough rot away on local hard drives or in personal mail folders.

  9. @Sam N: Yeah, the people who complain about my slides being so “simple” get a lot of abuse from me. I guess a lot of the people in the workplace are like what dean described – the ones who say everything’s got to have dancing cats in it and stuff.

    I think Tufte’s point isn’t really to poo-poo PowerPoint itself, even though his title sucks, but he’s complaining that the emphasis seems to be on making slides rather than explaining things properly. I think PowerPoint is one of the few good products from MS – at least when used properly. It does some things in horrible ways but it can be forgiven for its evil ways; I haven’t encountered any other software which is quite like it. Of course there are hard-core LaTeX users out there who create PDF presentations; in some ways that’s better because PowerPoint is still a little inconsistent on how it displays things on different computers/operating systems/versions. Many of my colleagues even use PowerPoint to create posters – but I just shake my head at them and use Scribus.

  10. @MadScientist: people seriously use Scribus? I have tried it and found it a badly unstable piece of junk (and no I wasn’t using the development version), whose user interface told me lies half the time, (e.g. font style = normal when in fact it was bold+italic was one of the more minor annoyances)

    Far as I can see, using Scribus is an exercise in masochism.

  11. Make no mistake: The utility of power point is unrelated to the fact that it is evil because it is made by Microsoft. No one doubts that.

    I don’t fully agree with the article cited (I often point to things that I don’t fully agree with, or agree with only a little). In particular, I disagree about the lack of utility of bullet points. We start our ideas with bullet points, flesh them out with text. Using a revised and updated list of bullet points as notes one might hand out is common. Sticking a form of those notes on the screen is a possilbe presentation style.

    It is not hard to recall presentations that had bullet-slides that were horrid and presentations that had bullet-slides that were engaging and informative.

    The whole idea of having all the slides have the same look and feel (the logo and the template) is the most evil thing about power point. It simply is not a good way to put together almost any presentation, and is a case of the method intruding on the motive.

    I used to show informative and interesting slides (i.e, projected photographs) interspersed with interesting and informative tables or graphs (which to use … table or graph … is not a power point decision). When I switched to power point, I simply used the machine-thingie to display those same slides/graphs. Steps were removed in creating them, and one machine was used instead of two or three.

    Hooking the damn machines up is now sometimes impossible, of course, which makes me laugh. And not funny ha ha.

    Power point is still evil, but of course, one does not have to use it. There is always OO.presenter.

    And, as I’m working on right now … emacs.

  12. I definitely agree with the commenters who blame the presenter rather than the slides the themselves. I have always (since the days before PP – Word Perfect Presentations circa 1994 anyone) that it can be too easy to distract from the message with frivolous slides.

    The best use I have seen of these programs is to have the notes view printed off and available for the audience. This allows the viewer to takes notes as each is presented. The idea being, of course, that the presenter will do more than read the slides.

  13. Way back when I was in school, one was supposed to build an outline before begining to write a paper. Bullet points are just an outline, pure and simple. Now this does suggest that the points be indented as needed just as in an outline. The real question to ask is what value do you add to your presentation beyond the slides, in other words if little is added why not just hand out the slides and wait for questions. (A poster session in essence). One hopes the presentation provides more than the outline just like a good paper provides more information than its outline.

  14. What makes Open Office less “evil” than PowerPoint (other than being open source)?

    I have not seen any presentation software consistently used to make good talks. Keynote has come closest in my experience, but somehow when I use it myself the presentations come out much worse than when I use PowerPoint. I guess I haven’t mastered it yet. When people use LaTeX it’s almost always (again IME) because they think they need to show a lot of math. They seldom actually need all the math, so the presentations usually come out fairly bad.

    Anyway, 95% of scientific presentations/lectures are going to be bad regardless of the software. Maybe the software accounts for the last 5%.

  15. PowerPoint is a great tool for certain things, but scientific presentations are not one of those things. The essential problem is that in a scientific presentation you want to foster discussion, but PowerPoint is designed to shut discussion down.

    I’ll concede that most of the blame for a bad presentation lies with the user, not the software. But the software often imposes choices which can actually interfere with your attempt to convey information. Take, for instance, the Gettysburg PowerPoint presentation (another oldie but goodie; Google “Gettysburg PowerPoint” if you’ve never seen it), which turns one of the greatest short political speeches ever delivered in English into a complete mush (and be sure to stick around for the rendering of “Four score and seven years ago our forefathers brought forth on this continent a new nation” as an Excel bar chart). Add the all-too-common style sheets which encourage people to waste valuable screen real estate with institution names and logos, as well as talk dates and titles (and not just on the title slide, where I can understand including such things). These handicaps can be overcome with effort, but it takes quite a bit of effort.

    As Greg says, bullet points are not bad in and of themselves. What is bad is that too many presenters fail to provide the detail behind those bullet points. Some of those presenters would have failed similarly with overhead transparencies or 35-mm slides (see “Guidelines for Giving a Truly Terrible Talk”, which dates from the 35-mm slide era but is still relevant in today’s PowerPoint era). Many others get lazy with PowerPoint because they can.

  16. What makes Open Office less “evil” than PowerPoint (other than being open source)?

    Well, it’s open source.

    For the uninitiated, let me point out that LaTex is not a math editor. It gets that reputation because it is very good at math, but I’ve been using it as the only system for producing handouts, pdfs, other things for a bout two years now and I’ve done exactly one math thing (and that was for soemeone else)

    I don’t doubt that most LaTeX based presentations are all math, of course ….

    I’d like to point out one more thing: SlideWare vs. overheads or regular slides have another problem. In my several decades of observing many hundreds of talks, I’ve seen someone be unable to present the visuals about 10 times at professional meetings, and for exactly two distinct reasons.

    1) They were using slideware and could not get the computer/presentation/projectors to work for some reason (and the most recent case was just one year ago); and

    2) They had died minutes or hours before the presentation was to be given and therefore could no longer … give the presentation.

    This does not speak to all the talks that have been delayed or made clumsy becasue of the brilliant technology we are all stuck with now, and this does not count lost presentations in classroom settings. That number is much, much larger.

  17. @Eric Lund

    “The essential problem is that in a scientific presentation you want to foster discussion, but PowerPoint is designed to shut discussion down.”

    Why? One of the most heated discussions I took part in was prompted by PowerPoint-powered presentation. I know I’m offering anecdotal evidence, but you haven’t offered any 😉

    @Greg Laden

    “For the uninitiated, let me point out that LaTex is not a math editor. It gets that reputation because it is very good at math, but I’ve been using it as the only system for producing handouts, pdfs, other things for a bout two years now and I’ve done exactly one math thing (and that was for soemeone else)”

    I’ve tried doing a poster in LaTeX, and it’s a pain. The problem is with positioning. LaTeX forces you into a rectangular layout, because you can’t just move things around the page with your mouse, you need to use boxes and v/hspaces. All right, you can use pstricks and spend time solving boring (and unrelated to your work) geometrical exercises. People don’t think about visual design the way LaTeX wants to force them to think. It’s like writing GUIs in assembler.

    Apart from writing math-heavy texts and scientific papers, LaTeX has little advantage over word processors. Try doing a word count of a LaTeX (it’s a must for many professional writers). I have yet to see a spell checker which would not report false negatives when checking LaTeX documents (“Misspelt: renewcommand”). Integration with typical office programs (like Excel) is non-existent. LaTeX is technology from the early 90s which is being marketed by some as something perfectly applicable to modern times. It is not. TeX is a splendid piece of work by Knuth, but so were analogue computers.

    My wife is a physicist. She designed one poster in LaTeX, after that she switched to CorelDraw, because it lets her design the graphical look (she has a refined taste for these things) of the poster the way she likes it.

  18. It is old, but thanks for bringing it back anyway. I think there’s room for controversy but it’s thought-provoking.

  19. @andy: When did you last try Scribus? I’ve found it very usable in the past 3 years and for me it’s more convenient than hacking at LaTeX to make a poster. I can’t recall any problems with Scribus. The earlier versions ~2003 were not good, but that was 7 years ago.

  20. @Roman: LaTeX, like TeX is for typesetting beautiful documents – not for making posters. Like any tool it can be abused, and people have used it to make posters but the requirements of a good poster are substantially different from the requirements of a good thesis or scientific or maths paper, or a book. I only use a word processor to write letters; some people use TeX/LaTeX for letters, but that’s far too complex for me – that’s one case where I’d rather type and whack the tab key than type up obscure markups.

  21. @MadScientist

    I know (and don’t like too much) the slogan, I was responding to Greg who said he uses LaTeX for pretty much everything.
    I think LaTeX has serious problems even when limited in use to scientific papers. The fact that in 2010 I have to write


    to align numbers to decimal point, is horrendous.

  22. Roman, I think what Greg said is that he uses a text editor and then utilities that use LaTex to make output of one kind or another.

  23. Austen is correct. I’ve never once written one tiny bit of LaTex code. It is nice that I could if I had do, but I don’t have to.

    The point is to use text files that can then be used in numerous ways and converted in numerous ways.

    Try this: Write something that uses some formating (itals, etc., may be a header). Do it in OpenOffice writer and do it in your favorite text editor using markdown.

    Now make some HTML to put that in a blog post, from both starting points.

    Then do that ten times a day for a year. You won’t be using Writer at the end of that. You’ll be using vim or emacs and some kind of reliable easy to use filter that can output a chunk of minimalistic HTML code, not a document-level code with divs and spans and piles of other crap.

  24. @Greg Laden

    “The point is to use text files that can then be used in numerous ways and converted in numerous ways.”

    My point was that LaTeX has been always promoted as solving the problem of sending sharing documents and enabling separation of content and presentation. Neither of this points is even close to reality.

    – Sharing documents is easy as long as you don’t use any non-standard packages, which is often a must, as many things are very hard to do in native LaTeX; you are also missing out on advanced tools for reviewing text which are present in, say, MS Word
    – My example of how cumbersome it is to align numbers in a tabular environment is also an example of how quickly the separation of content and presentation erodes — I have to mangle content (replace . with & in numbers, formally splitting them in 2 colums) to achieve decent presentation; if later I would like to search for one of the numbers in the table, I’m out of luck
    – When I was writing my master’s thesis, I’ve been swapping LaTeX files back and forth with my adviser. He was using Windows LaTeX (and CP1250 codepage), I was using Linux (and Latin-2 encoding). It required numerous conversions of files and adjustments of inputenc package options.

    “You’ll be using vim or emacs and some kind of reliable easy to use filter that can output a chunk of minimalistic HTML code, not a document-level code with divs and spans and piles of other crap.”

    OK, so for you LaTeX is an assembler, which you don’t use directly, but compile your high-level markdown language to. That’s a neat idea — I really like it — but that’s not how most people use LaTeX.

  25. Yea, I can’t see Latex as helping with portability, even within a given user’s needs.

    Like, I can’t use pandoc to export a .tex file that will work in lyx. I’m sure there’s a simply reason for this and it can be fixed in fewer than fifty lines of code, but still….

    My ultimate goal will be to write a sed script that will turn text files in to slide-ware presentation and handouts in one fell swoop, called from emacs, of course.

    (rtf or html may be the way to go. What sucks about html is that it does not know about paper. )

  26. Sounds like a great way to make really boring presentations. With PowerPoint (and probably the freeware stuff as well) I can insert videos, pictures, sounds and other stuff very easily. Since my research subject is behavior of wild animals, this helps a lot. Making text-rich presentations seems useless to me, as I use powerpoint to put slides and videos together (and the bulk of my treatment of the subject is given by myself as a speaker, engaging with the audience and telling the story).
    If I were addressing a class, I would use slides for illustration, and write text on a board or overhead in order to give notes.

  27. PowerPoint is not about writing its about speaking. Of course a presentation is going to have few written words as the bulk of the content is spoken verbally.

    It should not be the only thing they do, but schools should be teaching kids how to communicate verbally with visual aids.

  28. power point is just a tool that people can use to spit out crappy talks. it can be used well or incredibly horribly.


    the road to hell is paved with powerpoint presentations.

  29. Ah, death by powerpoint. If the inquisition existed today, powerpoint would be preferred to the rack. I’m surprised the military didn’t just make their prisoners sit through interminable powerpoint presentations instead or water boarding them.

    This discussion also reminded me me another old youtube video:
    chicken chicken chicken

  30. i am a business presenter .I’ve used SlideShare before but now I use PowerShow.com instead to share and upload my presentations. It’s a lot easier to use and supports more multimedia effects. now i am satisfied about it.

  31. i am a marketing presenter .I’ve used SlideShare and many others before but now I use PowerShow.com instead to share and upload my presentations. It’s a lot easier to use and supports more multimedia effects. its very good.

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