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The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint (2003) [pdf] (ed.ac.uk)
81 points by azalemeth 22 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 49 comments

Whenever people complain of "death by Powerpoint", I remember this article from Reader's Digest in the 2000s about the Carl Hayden Community Highschool Robotics Team who upstaged no less than MIT in competition.

In one part of the contest, the teams had to discuss their design. One of the judges asked the Carl Hayden team why they had no Powerpoint slides.

"Powerpoint is what you use when you don't know what to say," answered one of them without skipping a beat.

Ballsy, of course, but the subtext of the story was that the team really had their hands full as they tried to punch above their weight class. They knew what they were doing but there was no shortage of opportunities for them to improvise and the presentation was one such instance.

I was in high school when I read the piece and that's the line that stuck with me. Since then I always made sure I know my material, slideshow or no slideshow.

Almost all of the deficiencies of PowerPoint typically complained about are deficiencies of the speaker: the inability or unwillingness to make compelling slides, or, very frequently, trying to create one presentation which serves as a discussion aid and a formal document of record — about as likely to succeed as engineering a device to land on Mars and explore the Mariana Trench.

PowerPoint is just a two dimensional layout program — criticisms of the actual software would be around how easy it is to type this kind of text, or align these kinds of objects, etc. I’m sure thousands of such deficiencies exist but that’s never what you hear about.

Your point is directly addressed in the essay:

> This makes one good point: responsibility for poor presentations rests with the presenter. But it is more complicated than that. PP has a distinctive, definite, well-enforced, and widely-practiced cognitive style that is contrary to serious thinking. PP actively facilitates the making of lightweight presentations.

> This essay reports evidence based on several thousand slides, 5 case studies, and extensive quantitative comparisons between PowerPoint and other methods of communicating information. The results are clear:* some methods of presentation are better than others. And PowerPoint is rarely a good method. […]

> In this question, the tool metaphor does not provide intellectual leverage. Some tools are better than others; some poor performances are the fault of the tool. Saying that the problem is with the user rather than the tool blames the victims of PP (audience, content, presenter).

> Nearly all the evidence of the essay suggests that there is inherent defect in PowerPoint, unless one advances the entertaining alternative hypothesis that nearly all PP users are lightweights and nearly all users of other methods are not. This is not the case; PP has inherent defect.

But, if I understand the article correctly (I only read some chapters, as the essay was dragging along in its conclusions, so I might have missed some aspects), the alternatives are not PowerPoint vs Latex Presentations (or whatever slides are used). The alternatives are technical reports and written and high density handouts (e.g., for tables or detailed pictures).

The key problem of low density is true for most presentations I considered good as well, independent of powerpoint usage. Most of the times, they are essays.

Now that I think of it, this essay would probably work well as a talk (no matter the software).

But most people who for example, give a wedding speech, also do a terrible job. Essentially, most people are uncompelling speakers.

At my grandmother's funeral, a family friend from South Africa (who I hadn't seen since I was ~5) gave a speech -- I'd forgotten that he was a retired university lecturer. It was one of the most powerful, beautiful pieces of oratory I have ever heard: he told the story of her life in South Africa (where she was born) in a way that was new to me, my mother, and utterly captivated a spellbound church.

This point -- that, by comparison at least, most people are uncompelling speakers -- is something that bears repeating.

Hmmm ... In 1982 I heard a talk by Edsger Dijkstra given at my company. As he stepped up to the overhead projector he said "I asked for 20 feet of blackboard, and I got this ..."

As a (former) presenter, I found myself constantly struggling to figure out how to get what I wanted to say onto a slide. I'm going to say, I want a projector that can project on to a wall 10 feet high (although I'd probably only use the top five feet) and 15 feet across. I personally have bad eyes, and don't want to resort to anything less than really easy to read text size. It's not just powerpoint, but the physical infrastructure that becomes standard support for powerpoint that becomes the enemy of deep, complex ideas.

>trying to create one presentation which serves as a discussion aid and a formal document of record

It can depend on the context. A presentation that I'll give at an event is mostly fairly worthless as a leave-behind. It has relatively few words and is graphically rich. On the other hand, I sit through a lot of presentations at work where the slides basically are a document (in a form that a lot of people find more digestible than a standard text document). And if the speaker is good, they'll spend their interactive time hitting what they think are some of the highlights. I don't have any real problem with that.

One of the nice side effects is that if someone skims a slide of particular interest to them and they see something confusing/interesting, they can ask the speaker about it even if the speaker didn't bring it up.

> if the speaker is good

Some do good jobs.

Others just read the bullet points.

On the other hand, the bullet points require at least a bit of organization, unlike the stream of consciousness drivel that too many "planning documents" seem to exhibit.

No. Read the article again with an eye towards enforced structure. A software package may not suitable for a task, despite the efforts of the programmer.

> I’m sure thousands of such deficiencies exist but that’s never what you hear about.

Maybe as a side-effect of telemetry, the usability of PowerPoint and Excel unceasingly improves, to the point that it's impossible to compete with the former.

I’ve just finished Robert Gaskins book on the early history of PowerPoint.

He makes this exact point however I’m inclined to disagree. Trying to convey complex information using PowerPoint is like consuming all your meals through a straw.

I've actually had good experience just tossing a raw Jupyter notebook up on the screen and talking through it. Even with senior managers and marketeers in the audience. Maybe a couple of things are happening:

1. The novelty of it for most of the audience catches their attention.

2. It creates a feeling of participation rather than passive observation, especially if they ask a question and I answer it by modifying a cell and re-running it.

3. There's an implied sense of immediacy: The information is so new and cool that I didn't have time to make slides.

I had the same experience with SQL Server Analysis Services and later with Power BI.

I would simply open Excel, connect to the OLAP cube and start dragging & dropping columns while explaining what it was representing. Like: "Here's your sales total, you know that, now we'll break it down so that government sales are in a separate column, now split by state, etc...". People would ask questions they hadn't had answers to in years and I would simply rearrange the pivot table so they'd not only get the number they wanted, but they could see the process of getting there.

I once had an executive stand up, point at the screen and shout: "I want this, right f%^&ing now!"

I don't know what Jupyter is, but I want to throw my dollar into your #2 hat - that's what I think makes the difference.

I've earned paychecks teaching and presenting for more than ten years, and the powerpoint is just passive, as you said. You sit back. Your brain lulls as you wait to be fed information. I'm not necessarily opposed to it, but...

Anything that can be manipulated - blackboard, open .doc file projected that you type into, or (maybe best) The Prop - gives a sense of the living tool. It's not the finished product; it's not your Auntie's knick-knacks. It's the living tool. And everybody wants to play with a new tool, even if it's just by asking a question so you'll modify a cell and re-run.

Also, the real-time interaction of changing things in front of people gives them something more: a chance to glance around and take in social cues that are lost while everyone's passively staring at a powerpoint.

Don't know why I wrote all that. Guess I'm preaching to the choir, and maybe I'm just spurring myself to move away from some of my own bad practices... or maybe, I'd love a little experiment, since my money's on #2. Ask a lecturer to give the same presentation, once with a blackboard, once with a powerpoint. And take a survey before and after both lectures (different participants of course) and see if there really is a difference.

Anyways glad you've had some luck with your Jupyter notebooks! (Just looked them up - they seem really cool!)

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that you can export your notebook to Reveal.js slides really easily these days ;p


I like making a static webpage (my colleagues use a TWiki, but you can use your own flavor) for collaboration talks. You just scroll through the webpage, gifs "just work", pictures look great, and you can add descriptive text that your audience can read on their own time.

This is really nice, because if anyone wants to look at what you said later, they don't have to go rooting through PDFs or powerpoints. The whole talk is indexed and searchable, and it's immediately available (with correct formatting) on any internet-connected device.

I thought there were more past related threads but these are all I could find, not counting a couple with a throwaway comment or two:

The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint (2003) [pdf] - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10316426 - Oct 2015 (1 comment)

Defending PowerPoint Against Tufte - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7119804 - Jan 2014 (21 comments)

PowerPoint is Evil - Lessons from Edward Tufte - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2131 - March 2007 (1 comment)

There's also this, which has some overlap:

Why PowerPoint should be banned - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9606345 - May 2015 (207 comments)

Thanks Dang -- and thank you for running an excellent site for the last ~14 years :-).

Pre-covid I always hated PowerPoint because I thought of it as an especially inefficient way to store and transmit information. But I have learned to appreciate it now that remote-interaction is all via a screen anyway. It feels like a very natural collaboration format - one screenful of information at a time.

Wonder if there is value in providing slide-less talks. Where the speaker engages the audience and provides a written report with a logical flow for deeper analysis if needed.

This is pretty much how good university lectures are conducted.

The instructor provides some "lecture notes" ahead of time and/or some other assigned reading, then the lecture session itself is more of an overview, discussion, and/or extended worked example, with lots of classroom engagement.

However, it's more demanding on the audience this way. So it depends on the purpose of the session.

Note this works only if the audience actually does the homework in advance. I heard Amazon has people do the reading at the start of the meeting?

Is there specific value in the talks being slide-less?

I see that written reports are much better at conveying in depth information than talks, but if there is a talk and a written report - say a conference paper and associated talk - I judge them as two very distinct things.

The paper may be great, but the talk terrible (or the other way around). But the paper will also take me several times the investment to read than listening to the talk.

PowerPoint’s cognitive vagueness and thinness meet a fundamental need. 95% of these presentations are done by individuals that seriously lack the organizational POWER to deal with issues. So they are often show and tell, directed so as not to offend or usurp the power of the the highest ranking person in the room. Marching orders are rarely given by PP presentations. “The boss would like to see you and…”

PowerPoint is a tool.

Like any tool, it can be used well, and serve its wielder, or it can be used badly, where the wielder becomes it servant.

I've used PP and Keynote plenty. I prefer breaking away from them, as soon as possible, but they are pretty good for helping to establish a structured context to a class or presentation.

They just need to be used correctly.

I was just writing about Tufte (who is heavily cited by everyone). He loathes PowerPoint. He gives a pretty good class on how to convey information without the usual PP pie chart BS.

Most of my presentations are actually kind of useless, if provided as class resources. That's because they are simply background props to what I'm saying.

I (and my co-authors) published a paper that was highly-influenced by this work https://ecologylab.net/research/publications/mache_present.p... . It argues for more dynamic (Prezi) like presentations. I think Tufte is not as much of an academic as people tend to think, but he has fantastic intuition.

I haven't seen a great Prezi presentation. The motion and movement has never helped the content, it just made me a bit motion sick.

"We" like no slides in a presentation, plain text mail, markdown for documents, RSS for news feeds, IRC for chat, Graphviz for diagrams, ...

I don't know about you, but I certainly like all those things, with some amount of flexibility of course. What are you trying to communicate with the quotation marks around "we"?

I was too lazy to find another word. I do prefer those things too. Also RTF for documents. I guess I meant: it appears to be the community consensus.

Slides help to drive the discussion and convey relevant information. The slides are meant is bullet points to allow deep dive in whatever direction is desirable. Open discussion without structure simply leads to ratholing and consumption of the entire meeting slot.

It seems to me that most of his objectionable examples reflect shoddy thinking, more than failures of powerpoint per se. He seems to be saying in places that powerpoint makes it easier to get away with shoddy thinking, but I don't think he makes a very strong case for that. The tendencies he describes in powerpoint presentations will crop up anywhere someone wants to be lazy or obfuscatory.

perhaps one argument against this is that a clear, well scoped, and evidence-supported narrative document like this seems to not have been read by a healthy third of the commenters. I'm not being glib: the painfully low information density of a PP presentation is such that by the end of it, no one can claim to have missed any of the points. If the real point of the presentation is informing subsequent discussion among the attendees (which it is at my workplace) then the best written handout in the world won't get you too far if people are "skimming".

(really, I know metadiscussion is frowned upon, but it's quite striking how many comments I'm seeing state "PP is a tool" or "the deficiency is the speaker's" without touching upon the arguments against these in the piece... there's really something interesting there)

Many years ago I read about rules of Steve jobs to make good keynotes. Something like dont use bullets or dont write wall of texts, just big small sentences....

I cant find it. It was probably on arstechnica

Interestingly, the example he uses about correlation isn't true:

> Probably the shortest true statement that can be made about causality and correlation is "Empirically observed covariation is a necessary but not sufficient condition for causality."

Correlation isn't necessary for causation, so ironically the supposed mutilation used to fit on a PP slide - "Correlation is not causation" - is actually far more correct.

The same mistake is also made in Kahneman, Sibony and Sunstein's new book [1].

[1] https://twitter.com/economeager/status/1395791301627596806

This depends on the exact definition of causation.

Arguably, causation is merely a human word for "A always happens when B happens."

A causes B or vice versa is one of those things where it's true until it isn't.

Causation is frequently used to mean that B will always occur when A occurs. The problem is that no probability is truly 100%.

Laws of in fundamental physics might be causal. Humean causation has the problem that everything is contingent. It just so happens that energy always equals mass times the speed of light squared. But there’s no reason for it. This seems to run counter to the goal of physics and cosmology, where some fundamental explanation is sought.

Even with that definition, you won't necessarily observe correlation between A and B.

See the example used in the twitter thread I linked:

> Imagine driving a car, reaching a hill and pumping the gas as you begin to go up so that your speed is constant. The correlation between pressing on the gas and the speed of the car is zero but they're obviously causally related, it's that the agent is optimizing speed!

Well in that scenario, the only way your speed would be constant (assuming a constant angle on the hill) is if your engine thrust was constant. So "pumping" the gas just achieves a constant thrust. So your speed stays the same and the thrust stays the same. So there is perfect correlation and causation (by some definition of causation).

But more to the point, there isn't a good definition of causation. If you use the "but for A, B would not occur" there are problems. Other definitions also have problems.

This is a deep epistemological problem and I think not as simple as it may seem.

My best presentations were made directly on Gnu IMP.

Takes a bit of practice to get into a rhythm, but the result is unmatched.

Pretty sure I bought this report for money about 15 years ago.

I wrote patent-application flow-diagrams with PowerPoint. It did the job ok but maybe there are better tools for that too

I wish he would write something similar about dashboarding tools. "The Cognitive Style of Tableau".

Slides are terrible in most situations. I have found it is better to edit a document together, if you need to share your screen at all. Then the source of truth is updated automatically as the meeting outcome and there isn’t a proliferation of decks each with part of the big picture.

There's also this piece (paywalled) about the role of PowerPoint in the making the second Iraq war happen: https://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/27/world/27powerpoint.html

When ever I give any presentation that has to be in Power Point format (for which I use LaTeX), I include the Stalin slide from this.

NASA blaming the Challenger tragedy on Powerpoint is pretty rich.

Not Challenger, but Columbia, and not on Powerpoint, but usage of powerpoint in the organization leading to reduced visibility of data meaning those who received such reports didn't get the really important data.

... and NASA has never admitted to the failings identified by Tufte (or Feynman in the Challenger investigation, for that matter). I own the pamphlet this PDF is the electronic version of, because I thought Tufte earned that copyright (not a sentiment I have about many works, in general I think the terms of both copyright and patent should be reduced to 5 years -- in the interests of replenishing the commons that was the explicit goal of the US intellectual property system).

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