In defense of PowerPoint

Edward Tufte famously declared that PowerPoint is evil, and in my life as a consultant, I’ve witnessed quite a bit of love and hate directed at the ol’ ppt. OK, maybe not love per se, but you’d think so from the application’s sheer ubiquity in all manner of pitches, strategies and summaries.

It’s a sign of confidence to present without PowerPoint, and many kudos are laid upon the rare folks who can stand in front of a room and communicate sans slides, charts, bullets or script.

Obama does this. Much is made of how eloquent he is, and it’s worth emphasizing that he often speaks without even so much as a note card. Even when he stands behind a podium, he never looks down.

But now, as we find ourselves in the thick of the presidential race, and silly talk of flag pins and tire gauges is starting to give way to headier discussions of the economy and energy policy, maybe it’s time for a little PowerPoint.

As the candidates argue about the efficacy of offshore drilling – one saying it won’t affect gas prices for a decade or two or perhaps at all, and the other saying it will bring down prices in a few months – it’s nothing but two guys arguing until someone busts out some data.

When Obama talks about the economic and national security impacts of importing so much of our oil from questionable dictators, it’s nothing but words until you actually hear factoids like…

  • Enough solar energy falls on the surface of the earth every 40 minutes to meet 100 percent of the entire world’s energy needs for a full year.
  • We send $2 billion every 24 hours to foreign countries to buy nearly 70 percent of the oil we use every day.

Those, by the way, came from Al Gore’s recent “Generational Challenge to Repower America” speech. I use Al Gore as an example because he won a Academy Award for a PowerPoint presentation. An Academy Award. For a PowerPoint presentation.

Clearly, you can’t fault the medium for the crap that you normally see in PowerPoint.

Remember Ross Perot running for president in 1992? He produced the first-ever infomercials for a presidential campaign. He didn’t use PowerPoint, but he showed us lots of charts and graphs. He was dismissed by many as a cartoon and a crank, but he got nearly 20% of the vote. That’s nearly unheard-of for a third-party candidate.

Bottom line is, the candidates are good at spewing positions and opinions, and they may think that people have no patience for the nitty gritty. But I think they’re wrong. I believe the first candidate who can effectively illustrate his opinions, who can bolster his positions with facts and figures packaged as delicious bite-sized morsels will take a huge leap in the polls.

3 Replies to “In defense of PowerPoint

  1. Good points. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that we don’t need “factoids.” We need *facts*. A factoid is something that looks and acts like a fact. But it isn’t necessarily a fact. Just as a planetoid is a planet like object, but it isn’t a planet.

    “32% of all physicians in the US have prescribed themselves painkillers, according to a recent survey.”

    Sounds authoritative, but it is complete BS. Just made up by me minutes ago. That’s a factoid.

    I know, I know — current parlance uses “factoid” and “fact” interchangeably. But I suspect that is further indication of the problem.

  2. Hmm… I think of a “factoid” simply as a an information unit that communicates one or more facts. In the first bullet above, the “fact” at the core might be something like, “The earth’s surface receives an average of 36.9 trillion megajoules of energy from the sun every minute.” Making it into a “factoid” means wrapping it in a meaningful context to make it stickier, more comprehensible, perhaps more persuasive – without distorting the core fact of course.

  3. Not to flog the dead horse too much, but the following excerpts are from page on “factoid”:

    fac·toid /?fækt??d/ – noun
    1. an insignificant or trivial fact.
    2. something fictitious or unsubstantiated that is presented as fact, devised esp. to gain publicity and accepted because of constant repetition.

    And further…

    “Usage Note: The -oid suffix normally imparts the meaning “resembling, having the appearance of” to the words it attaches to. Thus the anthropoid apes are the apes that are most like humans (from Greek anthr?pos, “human being”). In some words -oid has a slightly extended meaning—”having characteristics of, but not the same as,” as in humanoid, a being that has human characteristics but is not really human. Similarly, factoid originally referred to a piece of information that appears to be reliable or accurate, as from being repeated so often that people assume it is true. The word still has this meaning in standard usage. Seventy-three percent of the Usage Panel accepts it in the sentence It would be easy to condemn the book as a concession to the television age, as a McLuhanish melange of pictures and factoids which give the illusion of learning without the substance. · Factoid has since developed a second meaning, that of a brief, somewhat interesting fact, that might better have been called a factette. The Panelists have less enthusiasm for this usage, however, perhaps because they believe it to be confusing. Only 43 percent of the panel accepts it in Each issue of the magazine begins with a list of factoids, like how many pounds of hamburger were consumed in Texas last month. Many Panelists prefer terms such as statistics, trivia, useless facts, and just plain facts in this sentence.”

    So I guess we’re both sorta right on the matter.

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