You may not have known this, but there's such a thing as a World PowerPoint Championship. This year it had around 850,000 students from 119 countries, and has a state, national, and world competition.
The prizes are pretty cool. The only US student to win in the world competitor, one Seth Maddox of Geraldine, Alabama (population: 900) won a $10,000 prize, a laptop, and, of course, a trophy. Way to go, Seth!
When I first stumbled across this story in Slate, I assumed that the competition was to see who could make the most effective PowerPoint presentation. I envisioned a panel of judges, a set of criteria (readability, persuasiveness, etc.), like a debate competition.
Well, I thought wrong. Rather than effectiveness, the competition tests who can most quickly replicate a paper presentation. In other words, it's a competition to see who can stroke PowerPoint's famously clunky user interface fastest.
While that's a metric that can be easily measured, it's also Microsoft's tacit admission that it's not meaningful to measure the effectiveness of PowerPoint presentations, or else they'd measure that instead.
Intuitively, we all know that PowerPoint is a horrible time-suck. (Admit it: don't you groan inside when the first slide pops up?) And anecdotally, the world's top entrepreneurs (like Jeff Bezos, Jack Dorsey and Mark Cuban) avoid it like the proverbial plague.
At least two peer-reviewed studies buttress the anecdotes.
A study conducted at the University of New South Wales in 2007 by John Sweller (the psychologist who invented Cognitive Load Theory) found that showing audiences the same words that are being spoken reduces, rather than increases, audience comprehension.
In other words, when you throw up bullet points and then run through them, you're guaranteeing that whatever you say will be quickly forgotten. Not because you're bloody boring, but because people can't read and listen at the same time.
The entire concept of PowerPoint is apparently misbegotten, according to a recent Harvard study cited in Forbes, which found that
"PowerPoint was rated (by online audiences) as no better than verbal presentations with no visual aids. (Ouch.)"
Consider that for a second. You audience will be just as happy with your presentation if you do it without your slides. Which means the time you spent building the deck was basically wasted.
PowerPoint might even be making your team members less intelligent. As the woefully underappreciated How PowerPoint Makes You Stupid points out:
"PowerPoint's celebrated ease and efficiency actually mask a profoundly disturbing but little-understood transformation in human communication. The slides, bulleted lists, and flashy graphics we all now take for granted [have] promoted a new, slippery 'grammar,' where faulty causality, sloppy logic, decontextualized data, and seductive showmanship have replaced the traditional tools of persuasion and argument [resulting in] the corruption of language [and] the dumbing-down of society."
That PowerPoint might be inducing general brain-rot explains the fad-addled, biz-blab-ridden thinking that's become so common in today's business world. Especially since people make and present a mind-boggling 30 million PowerPoints every day.
And that estimate was made 23 years ago.
So there you have it. You'll communicate better and free up oodles of time if you simply stop doing PowerPoint slides completely and instead, if necessary, write a summary or outline to hand out as an aide d'memoire at the end of your presentation.
Note (8/10: 9:00 Eastern): a reader suggested that the study, conducted under the auspices of the Harvard University Department of Psychology, was invalid because it was funded by a grant from a PowerPoint competitor.
This observation is irrelevant because, as the original peer-reviewed paper clearly explains, the competitor had no role in determining either the construction of the study or the results of the research. The study throws shade at the competitor, too, BTW.
In any case, the part of the study to which this column refers is the comparison of PowerPoint with a slide-less presentation--an illustration of the problem of cognitive load, which is well-accepted science.