PowerPoint is 25 Years Old

Really! It turned 25 a couple of weeks ago. I use it quite frequently. Sometimes it helps if one is prepared but it cannot rescue an ill-prepared presentation, and indeed can make a bad thing worse. I take a very poor view of people who put too much stuff on slides and/or read slides. These people should be slapped for not knowing that the audience can read. The BBC News Magazine has an article on how people mess up making presentations with it. A bit from there below the fold.


If there’s nothing but text on the screen, people will try to read and listen at the same time – and won’t succeed in doing either very well. . .


You think bullet points make information more digestible? Think again. A dozen slides with five bullet points on each assumes that people are mentally capable of taking in a list of 60 points. If it’s a 30-minute presentation, that’s a rate of two-per-minute.

This highlights the biggest problem with slide-based presentations, which is that speakers mistakenly think that they can get far more information across than is actually possible in a presentation. At the heart of this is a widespread failure to appreciate that speaking and listening are fundamentally different from writing and reading.

In fact, the invention of writing was arguably the most important landmark in the history of information technology. Before writing, the amount of information that could be passed on to others was severely limited by what could be communicated in purely oral form (ie not much). But the ability to write meant that vast amounts of knowledge could be communicated at previously unimagined levels of detail.

The trouble is that PowerPoint makes it so easy to put detailed written and numerical information on slides that it leads presenters into the mistaken belief that all the detail will be successfully transmitted through the air into the brains of the audience.


A Microsoft executive recently said that one of the best PowerPoint presentations he’d ever heard had no slides with bullet points on them. This didn’t surprise me at all, because we’ve known for years that audiences don’t much like wordy slides and don’t find them as helpful as pictorial visual aids.

What does surprise me is that so many of the program’s standard templates invite users to produce lists of bullet points, when the program’s main benefits lie in the creation of images. If more presenters took advantage of that, inspiring PowerPoint presentations might become the norm, rather than the exception.

I have finally developed a handy rule. I first decide what I believe I will be able to comfortably convey given the time — whether at a classroom lecture or a presentation at a conference. Then I remove half of it. Then I carefully think through the main points and end up with about a third of what I had first considered possible. I am left with a minimal set of points that must be conveyed come hell or high water. Then I make the slides.

Author: Atanu Dey


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