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Grist: More Power Than Point

PowerPoint (or "presentation software") has become the lingua franca of American business. It's also become the problem with American business.
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The problem with American business isn't gutless boards, management greed, strategy failure, or a well-fattened immobility created by the mirage benefits of acquisitions. No, according to a growing chorus, the problem with American business is PowerPoint.

PowerPoint -- technically "presentation software" -- has become the lingua franca of not just business, but government (the military loves it). Microsoft -- which owns it -- estimates that it is installed on 400 million computers, meaning that millions and millions of PowerPoint presentations are droning somewhere each and every day. (Microsoft's ownership is no great shock because it has considerately embedded the company name in spell check.) The product was introduced in April of 1987 by Forethought, which apparently didn't have much of it; its owners sold to Microsoft in July of the same year for a measly $14 million.

Objections to PowerPoint ring numbingly true to anyone who's been exposed to its obsessive-compulsive organizational structure and truncated syntax: PowerPoint is a radical oversimplifier. It artificially marches the audience to a predetermined conclusion. It chills discussion.

One of the first anti-PowerPoint rumblings came from that professional rumbler (and professional Microsoft foe) Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, who banned it in 1997. More recently, magazine articles with titles such as "Absolute PowerPoint: Can a Software Package Edit Our Thoughts?" and "Friends Don't Let Friends Use PowerPoint" have begun popping up.

The anti-Pointers' revolutionary screed is a self-published pamphlet by Edward R. Tufte, a professor emeritus at Yale and an expert on visual information. Entitled "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint," it includes a two-page deconstruction of a PowerPoint slide from Boeing given in January 2003, after the space shuttle Columbia was launched but before its tragic demise. The report, writes Tufte, was a "PowerPoint festival of bureaucratic hyper-rationalism" with "data imprisoned in tables" and an array of bullet and subbullet points that were "medieval in [their] preoccupation with hierarchical distinctions."

Tufte doesn't mention the globally televised use of PowerPoint by Secretary of State Colin Powell as he made his case to the Security Council. (Hey, Bulgaria was convinced, wasn't it?) Nor does he -- or any of the PowerPoint detractors I've found -- talk about its role in the shenanigans of the 1990s. Enron, for one, was famous for using PowerPoint to simultaneously explain and legitimatize its byzantine finances.

All these datapoints -- as they say -- make it easy to dislike or even loathe PowerPoint. Too easy, in fact. Think about it for a moment: Which came first on the evolutionary ladder, stupidity or PowerPoint? For all the demonizing, PowerPoint is just a tool. And we should all know by now that tools are like messengers: They shouldn't be shot, they should be feted because they tell us something about what's going on beyond our headquarter's camp.

And what is going on? Why has PowerPoint become so popular? What deep corporate urge does it satisfy? It's probably closer to the truth to see PowerPoint as the symptom of a deeper disease, a syndrome marked by a shortage of reflection and insufficient critical thinking. Call it distractulitis, an inability to remain focused on something long enough to assess it effectively, and the resulting tendency to default to the simplistic and grabby. Distractulitis is what makes companies intolerant of subtlety and nuance, turns complexity into a sign of weakness, and marshals antibodies at the presence of an idea that spills beyond the confines of a bullet point.

Silver bullets never work. PowerPoint was once seen as just that -- a solution to sloppy, disorganized thinking. But anti - silver bullets don't work either. (You can't crush the old boy network by banning golf courses.) Eliminating PowerPoint won't solve the problem of bad decision-making any more than PowerPoint itself brought on an epoch of sharply distilled, fact-based thinking. We can certainly unplug the projector, but wouldn't it be better to plug in our brains?

Contributor Adam Hanft (ahanft@inc.com) is president of Hanft Byrne Raboy, a Manhattan-based advertising and marketing firm.

Last updated: Aug 1, 2003




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