The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within

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Tufte, Edward R. 2006. The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.

Book Cover

Review: Edward Tufte is the foremost advocate of communicating complex data simply and clearly in the world today. It was naturally only a matter of time before he cast a critical eye on the software most responsible for dumbing down information transfer across the fruited plains---PowerPoint.

Don't worry: Tufte's criticisms of the software package are not the latest round of Microsoft-bashing from an academic elite practically wed to its Macs.

Rather, Tufte sets his sights on bigger and more rewarding game: how presenters have watered down their presentation styles to suit off-the-rack presentation templates provided by this software package.

His thesis is as simple and elegant as his goal of streamlined, impactful communication. PowerPoint lacks the resolution necessary to convey a rich stream of information to the presentation audience.

If you're inclined to defend the software, ask yourself if you've endured the following in a PowerPoint slideshow:

  • An unending stream of bullet lists or "talking points" consisting of a handful of words per slide
  • Branding (logos, headers, footers, titles etc) which takes up a large portion of available slide real estate
  • "Sesame Street" style animations which obscure rather than illuminate the subject matter
  • Distracting audio cues which draw the audience's attention away from the speaker and toward "the machine that goes, 'PING'"

Or try a simpler exercise: Think back to the best talk or pitch you can recall. Was PowerPoint employed? I suspect not; and for good reason, as Tufte argues.

Sadly, thanks to the ubiquity of the software, the abuse of PowerPoint has consequences far beyond bored audiences. In a particularly powerful section of the essay, Tufte demonstrates how PowerPoint contributed to the space shuttle Columbia disaster.

Since my purchase of this pamphlet, I have shared it widely with my PowerPoint-happy colleagues. The result, I'm happy to say, has been far more impactful and dynamic presentations which do not shirk on the data.

Once my dog-eared copy circulates widely enough (or enough freeloaders buy their own), my company may well break off the shackles of boring meetings and overly-slick sales pitches once and for all.

—Jeffrey A. Veyera 

 

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