Wednesday, February 15, 2012

PowerPoint Afterlife

Like an ex-smoker crusading against butts, my mini-crusade against bad PowerPoint is probably rooted in my past as an avid user and in-house software trainer for the entire Microsoft Office Suite. As a graduate student and in my early days of teaching, the ability to go from outline BOOM! to presentation was intoxicating. One graduate advisor had taught me how to use slides as a guide in presentations, and another had extolled the virtue of outlines as a good indicator of clear thinking. Then along came PowerPoint, followed by employment that included teaching others to use it, and I was hooked.

Eventually, a colleague in the visual arts was working with me to set up the web site for the Watershed Access  Laboratory and decided that I needed -- and was worth of -- professional help. She called one of my PowerPoint presentations "cute" -- but not in a good way. Then she took me to a day-long workshop led by Yale statistician and visual-communication genius Edward Tufte. Throughout the day, people kept asking Tufte about PowerPoint, and he swatted away their questions like so many annoying insects. A couple years later, however, he put his annoyance into a more constructive form -- an essay that has become my Bible and required reading for many of my students. (If I could require it of professors, I would!)
iStockphoto.com, via Boston Globe
I last blogged about this almost two years ago, when an article in the New York Times inspired me to post Death by PowerPoint. I should have given credit for that title to Eric LePage, an IT professional at BSU with whom I frequently give presentations on this topic.

I was inspired to revisit the subject this week by another article, this time in the Boston Globe, sent to me by a former student who read Tufte's critique in my coffee class -- and who had endured my performance of the Gettysburg Address with Peter Norvig's PPT slides. The Globe photo essay Stop the PowerPoint Pollution is the culmination of questions on the subject posed to readers of its business pages. It builds on an earlier essay by Paul Hellman, PowerPoint Mistakes that Drive People Crazy, both of which highlight the importance of having something meaningful to say before firing up the software!

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