Most business tools can be used either well or badly. Email can speed interoffice communications, or it can overwhelm with too much information. Spreadsheets can make calculations easier or they can be riddled with hard-to-find errors. Word processing can create attractive, easy-to-read documents or, well..., Comic Sans.

When used well, such tools make an organization smarter, more creative, and able to make better decisions. When used poorly, they do the opposite. The classic misuse of email, SPAM, for example, creates visual and mental noise. Insofar as SPAM wastes mental bandwidth, it makes an organization dumber, less creative, and less likely to make good decisions.

So that's how most productivity are. But PowerPoint is different. When used poorly, PowerPoint makes an organization dumb. When used well, PowerPoint makes that organization even dumber. Let me explain.

(Note: by "PowerPoint" I mean the Microsoft product and its clones.)

Every description of PowerPoint "best practices" suggests using PowerPoint to make your presentation more vivid, alive and entertaining. A common way to do this is to animate your graphs, so that the bars grow into their final position, right before your audience's eyes. Cool, eh?

Well, it turns out that animated graphs lead to bad decision-making. Robert Cialdini, professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, and author of the classic business bestseller Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, showed three groups of people performance statistics for a fictional high-school football player named Andrew. He then asked each group to rate Andrew, as a player, from 1 to 7.

The first group received a hard-copy table of statistics, the second group got a hard-copy of bar graph, and the third group were shown a PowerPoint presentation with animated graphs. The first two groups rated Andrew a 4.5 and 5 respectively. The group that saw the animated graphs rated the Andrew a 6.

Cialdini repeated the experiment using sports fans who were more experienced at understanding such statistics. The first two groups came up with the same number. The group shown the animated graphs rated Andrew as high as the novices had done, as a 6.

In other words, this "best practices" PowerPoint technique fooled even experts into giving a higher rating. As the New Yorker summarized: "PowerPoint seems to be a way for organizations to turn expensive, expert decision-makers into novice decision-makers."

A similar study of PowerPoint usage at the University of Houston and published in Computers & Education found that "students performed worse on quizzes when PowerPoint presentations included non-text items such as pictures and sound effects."

Another study at Perdue University, also published in in Computers & Education found that "students retained 15% less information delivered verbally by the lecturer during PowerPoint presentations."

Yet another study, this one from Harvard, showed that having words on a screen while you're talking has no effect, positive or negative, on comprehension or retention, making the creation of the presentation just so much wasted effort.

Are you seeing the pattern here? PowerPoint isn't helping, regardless of how its used. So what gives?

The root problem with PowerPoint is the way it encourages you to think, according to Edward Tufte, arguably the world's foremost expert on information design. The New York Times, summarizing Tufte:

"Microsoft's ubiquitous software forces people to mutilate data beyond comprehension. For example, the low resolution of a PowerPoint slide means that it usually contains only about 40 words, or barely eight seconds of reading. PowerPoint also encourages users to rely on bulleted lists, a 'faux analytical' technique... that dodges the speaker's responsibility to tie his information together."

Or as Tufte himself put it: "PowerPoint induces stupidity, turns everyone into bores, wastes time, and downgrades the quality and credibility of communication."

In other words, PowerPoint makes your organization dumber.

That's why, incidentally, that PowerPoint is so excellent as a Sales tool (as opposed to a productivity tool.) PowerPoint dumbs the customer down, making them more likely to make a buying decision based on bells and whistles rather than actual information.

The Alternative

If you want your organization to get smarter rather than dumber, here's what you do:

  1. Ban PowerPoint from your workplace. That's for all internal meetings but especially when people from outside your organization are trying to sell you something.
  2. Start every meeting with a group reading. Prepare a short document summarizing the issues, providing some analysis, and defining the decision that's to be made.

Writing a briefing document (as opposed to slapping down bullet points) forces people in your organization to think their ideas thoroughly through, before expending everyone else's time on them. It also makes your meetings shorter and more to-the-point.

That strategy comes, BTW, from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. So if you're still clinging to PowerPoint, you might consider that maybe Jeff Bezos knows more than you do, when it comes to making an organization smarter.

Published on: Sep 25, 2019
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