The Essay: Can You See My Slides?

In this episode

Does powerpoint make you dim? We look at the debate, the evidence, the history. We might even throw in a little slideware liberation manifesto.


Hello, and welcome to The Essay on Vulnerable By Design. The series in which we step back, pause and reflect on the everyday objects that make us vulnerable. I am Chris Onrust. In today’s episode: PowerPoint.

Can you see my slides? I actually do hope not because this is radio so there aren’t supposed to be any slides. What are you talking about? Slide decks, presentations, transparencies. It’s the thing that you put in front of your friends, family, or more likely, colleagues and prospective clients, to get information from you to them.

Or perhaps you didn’t even want to inform anyone. There was just a meeting scheduled, you had to fill up your slot. So you chose to give a presentation. And presentations inevitably involve slides. PowerPoint, and all of the copycat slideware friends out there, they are popular.

Next slide please.

Powerpoint is despised

On the other hand, of course, there are the haters. PowerPoint has been subject to so much software shaming over the years. Some people—are you one of them?—really, really dislike sitting through PowerPoint presentations. Presenters overfill their slides. They underfilled them. They talk at them. They talk away from them. They sauce them with bullet points, GIFs and clipart. They end them too late, or they end them too early. No sorry, just kidding, that would never happen.

PowerPoint is deemed to be so hellish. That a couple of years ago, communications expert Angela Garber coined the phrase ‘Death by PowerPoint’, which is a cruel, agonizing way to go.

It’s not you, it’s powerpoint

Over all of the years that I personally have been sitting through neatly bulleted slide decks punctuated by the odd obligatory cartoon, I always thought that whether a presentation works okay or not, was just a matter of skill. People, they need to put in some effort. They need to choose nice pics, make sure everything is legible. Avoid information overload. So I thought: it really depends on the presenter, whether a presentation works or not. That is, until I came across an article by statistician Edward Tufte from 2003, which is called ‘The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint’.

Next slide, please.

Now in this piece, Tufte argues that it’s not just what people do with PowerPoint that can have serious consequences. Think: embarrassing stock photos, illegible fonts, enough bullet points to make any staunch hunter go ballistophobe.

No, what Tufte claims is that the problem goes deeper. It’s not you. It’s not your colleagues. It’s not your well-meaning friends and acquaintances. It’s the program. PowerPoint itself is the problem. Or at least it’s part of the problem.

PowerPoint, they say, brings with it certain features that structurally prevent good communication. So PowerPoint is actively hurting presenters, audiences and passers-by across the globe. Now this I find intriguing. So naturally, I wonder: Okay, what’s the argument?

Powerpoint’s cognitive style

For their article, Tufte says, they analyzed several thousands of slides. They did a couple of case studies. They looked at all kinds of instructions and guidebooks on how to make a good PowerPoint presentation. And what they say is that there is something called a ‘cognitive style’ associated with PowerPoint.

Now, ‘cognitive style’, that’s a notion from psychology, and it just captures the way in which people think, perceive, or remember information. So it just has to do with information processing. The claim that they’re making is that PowerPoint (the programme) imposes a certain way of cognitive information processing, because of how it’s built and organized.

What then is the cognitive style that comes with PowerPoint? According to Tufte, based on the study I mentioned (and this is a very serious quote): “[The] foreshortening of evidence and thought, low spatial resolution, a deeply hierarchical single-path structure as the model for organizing every type of content, breaking up narrative and data into slides and minimal fragments, rapid temporal sequencing of thin information rather than focused spatial analysis, conspicuous decoration and Phruff, a preoccupation with format not content, an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.”

Whoo, okay, that sounds pretty serious. There’s lots in that quote. But I would just like to pick three of the points, which I think are legit.

Can I have the next slide, please?

Feature 1: Breaking up narrative

The first feature, which I think is relevant, is the suggestion that PowerPoint breaks up narrative and data into minimal fragments. And this is true. The basic unit of a PowerPoint presentation is the slide. And there’s a good explanation for this.

Historically, a slide was an actual physical thing, that you would put in an actual physical projector. So you might have a full slide deck, which should show one slide at a time. The original developers of PowerPoint admit that PowerPoint (the programme) was just designed to mimic this.

Robert Gaskins in their memoir from 2012, called Sweating Bullets: Notes About Inventing PowerPoint, says that they analyzed many, many overhead transparencies and 35 millimeter slides. And they crafted the programme, PowerPoint, to look like what was already in use at the time.

So yes, in the software, as in these antiquated projectors, the basic unit information that you’re confronted with, that you’re looking at, it’s just one slide at a time. So yeah, it seems accurate to say that it’s a structural feature of PowerPoint that whatever narrative you have, it gets broken up in exactly those units that fit into a single slide. So I think that this verdict, that PowerPoint breaks up a narrative into minimal fragment, it’s got to be true, a description of how it works, or how its organized.

Next slide, please.

Feature 2: Reducing evidence

The second feature I’d like to look at is the suggestion that PowerPoint limits evidence and thought, Well, yeah, obviously. This pretty much follows from the previous point. If the basic unit of information that you’re looking at is the slide, then per slide, you can only give as much information as fits on one slide.

Now Tufte says that of the thousands of examples that they studied, the average number of words at a single slide was just 40 words. And personally, I think today, it might actually be less, because people tend to go for these high impact statements.

Now this is exactly what ‘How to’-books on how to give a good PowerPoint presentation recommend. Keep it simple. Don’t overload people with information. No more than six items on a single slide. Now, of course, that is going to limit the amount of evidence and thought that you can put on a single page.

Tufte complains about this, because Tufte says that it results in empty slogans, imprecision, over-generalizations. And I think what’s crucial here is a comparison that they make. They say: take, for example, speaking. When people talk, they speak on average at a pace of 100 to 160 words per minute. That is already not a super efficient way of transferring information.

But PowerPoint gets you on average only 40 words per slide. Not even per minute, per slide. So Tufte says, on this basis: “The [PowerPoint] slide format has the worst signal/noise ratio of any known method of communication.” Ouch. Okay, let us look at feature number three.

Next slide, please.

Feature 3: Sequentiatity

Sequentiality of the PowerPoint slide deck. Sequentiality is just a fancy word for the idea that things come in a certain order. Here’s the thought: If there is little information per slide, and if you do want to tell something of a story, then that means that you’ll need many slides. And most likely, you’ll be presenting these one after the other.

Now what Tufte points out is that in terms of information processing, this has consequences. Because it makes it quite difficult to assess the logical relations between all of these pieces of information.

Pretty much out of the window go considerations such as: What are the causal relations between this bit and that? What is the overall analysis, or the argument? The main principle of organization that we’re left with is: this, and that, and then also that, and that. One thing after another.

And what is worse is what this means for the audience. Namely, the pace at which the presentation, or the presenter, is going through the snippets, which is outside of the audience’s control. In some cases, you have a presenter linger, and they just go on and on, and you just beg them to move on to the next point. In other cases, you’re just jotting down this brilliant thought that you had, and then the entire show has moved on five slides ahead, and you completely lost track of everything that was going on.

Tufte says—and I sort of agree with this thought—this entire point of control of the pace of information transfer creates a dominance relation of the presenter over the audience, which hurts the audience’s ability to control their own information uptake, or control their own learning.

These are three features of the so-called cognitive style of PowerPoint: breaking up the narrative, reducing the evidence, obscuring relations between snippets of information. These points can potentially be quite serious.

Powerpoint not a neutral tool

And from this, you can see why Tufte thinks that this whole cognitive style of PowerPoint isn’t just some neutral thing. What they say is: PowerPoint, it might seem appealing to you as a presenter, because you’ve got some prompts, you got some nice pictures on there, it all looks kind of professional.

But do realize that this comes at a cost. You’re harming content, because the content gets distorted, dumbed down. You’re harming audiences, because it’s limiting their ability to have proper information uptake. So all in all, it’s just wasting everyone’s time. Not because of anything you did as a presenter, anything you did wrong. But because of structural features of the programme that you’re using, namely PowerPoint.

Now, here’s a quote from Edward Tufte, to illustrate this whole thought. So what they say is: “Imagine a widely used and expensive prescription drug that claim to make us beautiful, but didn’t. Instead, the drug had frequent serious side effects: making a stupid, degrading the quality and credibility of our communication, turning us into bores, wasting our colleagues’ time. These side effects and the resulting unsatisfactory cost/benefit ratio, would rightly lead to a worldwide product recall.” Make makes you think.

Can I have the next slide, please?

Blaming the user

As you may imagine, such a strong statement has attracted its share of critics. I want to draw attention to an especially forceful argument, which comes from Professor Steven Pinker, who’s at Harvard University. And this is in an article in the Wall Street Journal from 2009. I think it merits quoting. Professor Pinker says: “Any general opposition to PowerPoint is just dumb”. Wow, yeah. I think it’s really difficult to resist the power of this specific piece of reasoning. And I think I haven’t seen that many people going down this argumentative line.

More commonly, the way people reply is—surprisingly, to me—with a form of user blaming. They end up saying things such as: “It’s not PowerPoint that results in bad presentations, it’s bad presenters.” Or: “You can’t blame the software for bad outcomes.”

Now, even one of the original makers of PowerPoint, Robert Gaskins, whom I’ve already mentioned, even they take this line. In their memoir, they have a section titled ‘Is PowerPoint the Problem, or Is It the Users?’. And here in that section Gaskins says that many people who make poor presentations are also so bad at writing, that they wouldn’t even try to write up any full detailed technical report or something similar. So they just don’t have the information processing capacities.

I am not sure if this is like the latest thing in marketing? But to defend the superiority of your product by suggesting that its users are dimwits sounds sort of curious to me. And I also find it a curious thought: Why couldn’t you blame a tool for structural deficits and bad consequences?

That’s almost like saying: “It’s not the ‘like’-button that causes social anxiety. It’s how people use the ‘like’-button.” Or: “It’s not notifications that make you grab your phone in the most awkward circumstances. It’s how you use the notifications.” Yeah, sure, if that’s what you want to believe.

I mean, think of it like this. If I get a flimsy record player that scratches my vinyl, then that record player is being a bad tool. It’s causing damage. Then of course, I’m going to blame the tool. So it seems to me pretty obvious that it’s perfectly possible to say that some tools can be responsible for bad outcomes, by design.

Why do people use powerpoint?

That leaves us with the million yen question. If PowerPoint is indeed so bad, why do people use it? Why do people keep giving slide-supported presentations? Why do people keep tolerating and going to these talks? Now I think here, at this point, we could get some insight if we look at things historically. Cue: massive throwback to 1987.

Here’s how PowerPoint was announced initially in a magazine called InfoWorld: “[PowerPoint is a] program that lets users create and manage business presentations using overhead transparencies, flip charts, speaker’s notes, and handouts. (…) The user works with an entire presentation at one time, eliminating the need to maintain an unwieldly assortment of individual drawings in separate files.”

Now, that was the selling point. You’ve got a programme to work with an entire presentation at one time, not an unwieldy collection of files. So basically, what it offered to its users was a stylesheet, editing tools that allowed for bulk editing; that allowed for uniformity.

Now personally, I wasn’t in business in the late ‘80s. But that sounds pretty convenient to me. It seems like it could save a lot of hassle. So I can completely see why people would want to jump on this programme.

Made for 1980s marketeers

But I also would like to point out that note in the announcement, that reference to business users, business presentations. Edward Tufte complains about this. They say that PowerPoint has an air of “… commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.” Well, yeah. That should have been no secret.

PowerPoint developer Robert Gaskins is quite explicit about this. In their memoir, they say, and here is a quote: “PowerPoint was designed to make it as easy as possible to continue to make marketing and sales presentations in the exact style already in common use”.

PowerPoint’s structure and design was based on how people in sales in marketing in the late ‘80s did their presentations, so that they would not need to change their ways. Now, I would say that—that background, that insight—is crucial here. Because once you realize it’s not you (or in any case, it’s not only you) but PowerPoint.

Because once you realize that today’s standards for presentations are modeled on what was all the rage in sales and marketing in the 1980s, then that opens up a massive space of liberty. Liberty, because if you are not now a 1980s marketing exec—and let’s just be honest, few of us today are—then why would you let yourself be constrained by such practices?

Reclaim your presentational freedoms

I think it is time to reclaim our freedom. As audiences, as presenters as friends, relatives and acquaintances of people have to suffer through boring presentations. Even as people who just happen to pass by an office window when someone is giving a talk. Do people still use offices? Something’s got to be done.

So let me sketch you a world. A world in which, when you are giving a talk, it is okay to step back and think: hey, how do I actually want to communicate with this group of people, on this particular occasion? Rather than automatically getting bogged down on the slideshare bandwagon.

Where, in such a talk, it is okay to draw, type or doodle live on the spot. Where it is okay to call up files, pics, or browser tabs. With or without bullet points. With or without clipart. A world in which it is okay even just to talk. Can you see that world?

Next slide please.

Thank you for tuning in to this week’s episode of The Essay. For more essays, talks and vulnerability research, stay tuned for fresh episodes from Vulnerable By Design, our parent program. You can also sign up to our email newsletter, The Vulnerability Letter. Head to for more information. I am Chris Onrust. Thanks for listening and bye for now.

See also