PowerPoint Makes Us Stupid?

We have all sat through and given presentations using PowerPoint. Because everyone has done this at some point or another, some people get the idea that they are experts on the subject. As a result I am sure that we all have heard a lot of advice on presentations.

This advice given on the website betterpresenting.com is more interesting than the usual list we normally hear (see http://www.betterpresenting.com/editorial/can-powerpoint-make-you-stupid/). Ultimately it concludes that PowerPoint is a finishing tool, and not a starting tool. It makes a number of recommendations, two of which are interesting:

  1. Start with a pen and paper, not with a blank presentation, and
  2. Consider not using PowerPoint at all. For an example, see Harry Potter author JK Rowling do just an excellent job of speaking without a slide show here (and it is an amazing speech): http://harvardmagazine.com/2008/06/the-fringe-benefits-failure-the-importance-imagination).

Ultimately, it seems, it is not PowerPoint that makes us “stupid”, it is us!

According to author Rick Altman, there are a number of errors that occur when you start with Power point. Two are discussed here.

First, you kill the creative process before you even start, and second, you become a prisoner of the script that is created on the slides.


Altman argues that the steps to the creative process is to first plan what, then how, and then to actually do it. The process is turned on its head when the program is opened. When you start your thinking and creative process by opening a PowerPoint file, you are tempted to fiddle with the transitions, font, colours, and worrying a lot less about the content.

He recommends doodling and note-taking first to get the general ideas thrashed out. Since you know you will be throwing that paper away in the end, you feel more freedom in exploring ideas. Once you write something on PowerPoint, it feels “done” and you do not want to go back to change it.

Sticking to the Script

While it is important to remember your purpose and goal, and for some (politicians for instance) sticking to the script is key, when you write an entire thought in 10 bullets on a slide, you block the ability to speak extemporaneously about the subject during the presentation. You feel compelled to address every word on the slide and not to deviate.

When you put words on the slide you create some risks:

  • Bullet points exist to represent the idea, not explain it. You explain the idea.
  • Words become a script that box you in and do not allow you to express your ideas in a more interesting or conversational manner.
  • People can read twice as fast as you can speak, if you read to them, you bore them and insult them at the same time.

But Why?

Winston Churchill would spend hours rehearsing and re-writing speeches, and most business advice says that for every 1 hour of meeting you need to spend 10 hours of preparation. Public speaking advice says that you should always practice (with both the words and the medium) before giving the speech. So why is this public speaking gospel not followed?

Altman argues that almost all business presentations use PowerPoint simply because it is expected (how often have you heard “send me the deck before the meeting so I can put it in the file”)? Managers make slides because they feel that they have to, and not because it adds to understanding. Often it is just what everyone expects to see.

Altman also found that managers, always busy and often not proactive, also only spend thirty minutes preparing the slides, and only just before the meeting. That is just enough time to copy and paste their notes into the slides, making busy, word-heavy slides which are hard to look at and only repeat what the manager is going to say anyway (see the risks above).

So What?

If you work in a meeting and presentation-heavy workplace, then you know how painful presentations can be, because no doubt some presenters commit the sins Altman lists. You also have an insight into the small changes you can make to rise (even marginally) above the low standard of most presentations.

As a presenter you need to ask a couple of questions:

  • Who is giving this presentation, me, or PowerPoint?
  • In the book Own the Room by Deborah Shames and David Booth, the presenter is encouraged to ask him/herself “what do I want people to think of me after this presentation”?

We have all seen a lot of good and bad presentations. With some experience and only the smallest amount of research it is safe to conclude that we create the stupidity in our presentations, not PowerPoint!


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