April 17, 1999  - NY Times
        Words Go Right to the Brain, but  Can They Stir the Heart?
        Some Say Popular Software Debases Public Speaking

           Good Morning.

        The title of today's presentation is: "The Effect of
        Presentation Software on Rhetorical Thinking," or "Is
        Microsoft Powerpoint Taking Over Our Minds?"

        I will begin by making a joke.

        Then I will take you through each of my points in a
        linear fashion.

        Then I will sum up again at the end. Unfortunately,
        because of the unique format of this particular
        presentation, we will not be able to entertain

        Were Willy Loman to shuffle through his doorway
        today instead of in the late 1940's, when Arthur Miller
        wrote "Death of a Salesman," he might still be carrying
        his sample case, but he would also be lugging a laptop
        computer featuring dozens of slides illustrating his
        strongest pitches complete with bulleted points and
        richly colored bars and graphs.

       Progress? Many  people believe that  the ubiquity of  prepackaged  computer software
        that helps users prepare such presentations has not  only taken much of the  life out of public
        speaking by  homogenizing it at a  low level, but has  also led to a kind of  ersatz thought that is
        devoid of original ideas.

        Scott McNealy, the shoot-from-the-lip chairman and
        chief executive of Sun Microsystems, who regularly
        works himself into a lather criticizing the Microsoft
        Corporation, announced two years ago that he was
        forbidding Sun's 25,000 employees to use Powerpoint,
        the Microsoft presentation program that leads the
        market. (The ban was not enforced.) Some computer
        conferences have expressly barred presenters from
        using slides as visual aids during their talks, because
        they think it puts too much emphasis on the sales pitch
        at the expense of content.

        Psychologists, computer scientists and software
        developers are more divided about the effect of
        Powerpoint and its competitors. Some are sympathetic
        to the argument that the programs have debased public
        speaking to the level of an elementary school filmstrip.

        "The tools we use to shape our thinking with the help of
        digital computers are not value free," said Steven
        Johnson, the author of "Interface Culture," a 1997 study
        of the designs used to enable people to interact with

        Johnson uses Powerpoint himself (for example, during
        a recent talk he gave at Microsoft) but nonetheless said,
        "There is certain kind of Powerpoint logic that is brain

        Presentation programs are primarily used for corporate
        and sales pitches. Still, the approach has leaked into the
        public discourse. Think of Ross Perot's graphs or
        President Clinton's maps. Critics argue such programs
        contribute to the debasement of rhetoric. "Try to
        imagine the 'I have a dream' speech with Powerpoint,"
        said Cliff Nass, an associate professor of
        communication at Stanford University who specializes
        in human-computer interaction.

        Other people, however, have made the opposite
        argument, saying that Powerpoint has elevated the
        general level of discourse by forcing otherwise
        befuddled speakers to organize their thoughts and by
        giving audiences a visual source of information that is a
        much more efficient way for humans to learn than by
        simply listening.

        "We are visual creatures," said Steven Pinker, a
        psychology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of
        Technology and the author of several books about
        cognition including "The Language Instinct." "Visual
        things stay put, whereas sounds fade. If you zone out for
        30 seconds -- and who doesn't? -- it is nice to be able
        to glance up on the screen and see what you missed."

        Pinker argues that human minds have a structure that is
        not easily reprogrammed by media. "If anything,
        Powerpoint, if used well, would ideally reflect the way
        we think," he said.

        But Powerpoint too often is not used well, as even
        Pinker admitted. He is on a committee at M.I.T. that is
        updating the traditional writing requirement to include
        both speech and graphic communication. "M.I.T. has a
        reputation for turning out Dilberts," he said. "They may
        be brilliant in what they do, but no one can understand
        what they say."

        Visual presentations have played an important part in
        business and academia for decades, if not centuries.
        One of the most primitive presentation technologies, the
        chalkboard, is still widely used. But in recent years the
        spread of portable computers has greatly increased the
        popularity of presentation programs.

         Just as the word processingprograms eliminated many of the headaches of writing
         on a typewriter, presentation software makes it easy for
         speakers to create slides featuring text or graphics to accompany their talks. The
        programs replace the use of overhead projectors and
        acetate transparencies, which take time to create and
        are more difficult to revise. Most lecture halls and
        conference rooms now feature screens that connect
        directly to portable computers, so speakers can easily
        project their visual aids.

        The secret to Powerpoint's success is that it comes free
        with Microsoft's best-selling Office software package,
        which also features a word processing program and an
        electronic spreadsheet. Other presentation programs,
        like Freelance from I.B.M.'s Lotus division and Corel
        Corporation's Presentations, also come bundled with
        other software, but Office is by far the most successful,
        racking up $5.6 billion in sales last year.

        Because most people do not buy Powerpoint on its
        own, it is difficult to tell how many actual users there
        are. Microsoft says that its surveys show that,
        compared with two years ago, twice as many people
        who have Office are regular users of Powerpoint today,
        and that three times as many Office users have at least
        tried the program. Anecdotal evidence indicates an
        explosion in the use of Powerpoint.

        For instance, the program is used for countless sales
        pitches every day both inside and outside a wide
        variety of companies. It is de rigueur for today's
        M.B.A. candidates.

        The Dale Carnegie Institute, which imbues its students
        with the philosophy of the man who wrote the seminal
        work "How to Win Friends and Influence People," has
        a partnership with Microsoft and offers a course in
        "high-impact presentations" at its 170 training centers
        in 70 countries. Microsoft has incorporated into
        Powerpoint many templates based on the Carnegie
        programs and has even incorporated the Carnegie
        course into the program's help feature.

        Powerpoint is so popular that in many offices it has
        entered the lexicon as a synonym for a presentation, as
        in "Did you send me the Powerpoint?"

        The backlash against the program is understandable.
        Even before the advent of the personal computer, there
        were those who argued that speeches with visual aids
        stressed form over content. Executives at International
        Business Machines Corporation, the model of a
        successful corporation in the 1950's, 60's and 70's,
        were famous for their use of "foils," or transparencies.

        "People learned that the way to get ahead wasn't
        necessarily to have good ideas," wrote Paul Carroll in
        "Big Blues," his 1993 study of I.B.M.'s dramatic
        decline in the era of the personal computer. "That took
        too long to become apparent. The best way to get ahead
        was to make good presentations."

        Critics make many of the same claims about
        Powerpoint today. "It gives you a persuasive sheen of
        authenticity that can cover a complete lack of honesty,"
        said John Gage, the chief scientist at Sun Microsystems,
        who is widely respected in the computer industry as a

        Academic critics echo the arguments made by Max
        Weber and Marshall McLuhan ("The medium is the
        message") that form has a critical impact on content.

        "Think of it as trying to be creative on a standardized
        form," Nass said. "Any technology that organizes and
        standardizes tends to homogenize."

        Powerpoint may homogenize more than most. In the
        early 1990's Microsoft realized that many of its
        customers were not using Powerpoint for a very
        powerful reason: They were afraid. Steven Sinofsky,
        the Microsoft vice president in charge of the Office
        suite, said that writer's block was an issue for people
        using word processors and other programs but the
        problem was worse with Powerpoint because of the
        great fear people had of public speaking.

        "What would happen was that people would start up
        Powerpoint and just stare at it," he said.

        Microsoft's answer was the "autocontent wizard," an
        automated feature that guides users through a prepared
        presentation format based on what they are trying to
        communicate. There are templates for "Recommending
        a Strategy," "Selling a Product," "Reporting Progress"
        and "Communicating Bad News."

        Since 1994, when it was first introduced, the
        autocontent wizard in Powerpoint has become
        increasingly sophisticated. About 15 percent of users,
        Sinofsky said, now start their presentations with one of
        those templates.

        The latest version of Powerpoint, which will be
        released this month, will feature an even more
        powerful wizard. The new version also includes
        thousands of pieces of clip art that the program can
        suggest to illustrate slides. There is even a built-in
        presentation checker that will tell you whether your
        slides are too wordy, or that your titles should be
        capitalized while bullet points should be lower case.

        Many see the best antidote to the spread of Powerpoint
        in a graphic medium that is expanding even faster than
        the use of presentation software: the Web. Whereas
        Powerpoint presentations are static and linear, the Web
        jumps around, linking information in millions of ways.
        Gage of Sun tries to use the Web to illustrate his many
        public speeches, though a live Internet connection is not
        as readily available at lecterns these days as a cable
        that can connect a notebook computer to a screen for a
        Powerpoint presentation.

        "Powerpoint is just a step along the way because you
        can't click on a Powerpoint presentation and get the
        details," said Daniel S. Bricklin, who developed the
        first electronic spreadsheet for P.C.'s and more recently
        a program called Trellix that puts Web-like links into

        Bricklin said the Web, like any new medium, required
        new forms of composition just as the headlines and
        opening paragraphs of newspaper articles helped
        readers skim for the most information.

        But he does not bemoan the popularity of presentation
        software. "It was a lot worse," he said, "when people
        got up with their hands in their pockets, twirling their
        keys, going, 'Um um um."'

A Web Site on PowerPointlessness with ideas of how to avoid misusing Powerpoint.



   May 31, 2001 - NY Times

           PowerPoint Invades the Classroom

           By LISA GUERNSEY

              Melvin Mazara, a seventh grader at the Edison School  in Union City, N.J., could not have
           appeared more engrossed in the  morning's assignment. He and his    classmates had been asked to
           assemble a report about a play  they had just read, "A Raisin in  the Sun" by Lorraine Hansberry,
           and Kelvin's teacher was   reviewing the topics to address:   Who are the major characters?
           What are the conflicts? What are    the broad themes?

           But Kelvin had other questions on  his mind. Like his classmates,  Kelvin was preparing his book
           report on PowerPoint, Microsoft's  popular presentation software, but  he had jumped ahead in picking a
           background color for his slides: a  rich royal blue, featuring a  shimmering gold key.

           Next came the layout. He typed  "conflicts" and it appeared,   perfectly centered and in a matching gold color,
           at the top of  one slide. After playing with font  size (12 point? 14?), he turned to a classmate. "How many conflicts
           can we have?" he asked, as he  tested the look of two or three  bullet points.

           His teacher, John Bennetti, had  started to walk through the rows  of desks, his eyebrows raised.
           "Enhance it when you are done," Mr. Bennetti said emphatically.  "When you are done."

           PowerPoint — the must-have   presentation software of the  corporate world — has infiltrated
           the schoolhouse. In the coming  weeks, students from 12th grade  to, yes, kindergarten will finish
           science projects and polish end-of-the-year presentations on  computerized slide shows filled
           with colorful animation, bold topic headings and neat rows of  points, each introduced with a
           bullet mark. Software designed  for business people has found an audience among the spiral  notebook set.

           "When you get to high school, you will need a lot of PowerPoint," said Nestor Mendoza, another
           student in Mr. Bennetti's class, "and in the real world, too. This  gives us time to practice."

           But just as PowerPoint has its detractors in the corporate world, some educators are disturbed
           by the program's march into the classroom. They are concerned that too many students will
           become fixated on fonts and formats without actually thinking about what they are typing next to all those bullets.

           Sandee Tessier, a kindergarten teacher at San Altos Elementary  School in Lemon Grove, Calif.,
          has been   using    PowerPoint with  her 5- and 6-year-old students for nearly four years, integrating
           it into her regular reading and math lessons.

           "People come in and they have tears in their eyes because they  can't believe what these little kids
            are doing," Ms. Tessier said.  "It's part of their day, like picking up a pencil."

           Sometimes, she said, she will take digital photographs of her
           pupils acting out scenes from a book, put the photos on slides
           and ask the pupils to describe their actions in words. In the
           process, the children create their own books.

           "I train them how to get into PowerPoint, how to get into their
           files, over many months," Ms. Tessier said. "And then they type
           captions under each slide. Their spelling isn't that great, but
           that's O.K."

           Ms. Tessier also encourages her pupils to write accounts of
           their lives and present them in front of the class.

           "It is sensational for oral language development," she said.
           "They'll say, `Hi, my name is Julie, and I like to eat pizza.' And
           there is their picture on the screen behind them, like on a TV
           monitor. They are the stars of PowerPoint."

           According to figures from Microsoft, the real star of the
           classroom may be PowerPoint itself: 69 percent of teachers
           who use Microsoft software use PowerPoint in their
           classrooms, an application second in popularity only to the
           workhorse of word processing, Microsoft Word.

           The software is not only a teaching aid, used by instructors as a
           substitute for a chalkboard. It has become a tool for students to
           use as well. Suddenly magic markers and construction paper
           seem so Old Economy.

           Some critics contend that PowerPoint's emphasis on bullets and
           animated graphics is anathema to the kind of critical thinking
           students should be learning in class.

           "Beware of PowerPointlessness," said Jamie McKenzie, the
           publisher of From Now On, an online journal about educational

           Joan Vandervelde, a director of online professional
           development at the University of Northern Iowa, said that she
           was offering courses this summer to help teachers combat
           PowerPoint abuse.

           PowerPoint's most pernicious quality, critics say, is its
           potential for substituting presentation polish for thinking skills.
           The software is not merely a word processor with large fonts: it
           can also serve as a silent guide on the art of persuasion.
           Step-by-step instructions are offered by what Microsoft calls
           the Autocontent Wizard, a tool that provides a template for
           building an argument. The wizard never fails to offer
           instructions. Click to add Topic No. 1. Insert real-life examples

           "It fosters a cookie-cutter mentality," said Jerry Crystal, the
           technology coordinator at Carmen Arace Middle School in
           Bloomfield, Conn.

           "PowerPoint to me is more about standardizing, rather than
           allowing students to uniquely express what they got out of a
           lesson," said Colleen Cordes, a founder of the Alliance for
           Childhood, a nonprofit group that questions the use of
           computers among young schoolchildren. "It may have a
           narrowing effect on children's imagination."

           According to Microsoft, PowerPoint's introduction into the
           classroom was not planned when the program was developed.
           But in the mid-1990's, as Windows 95 became the operating
           system of choice in homes and offices, Microsoft set its sights
           on an arena it had not yet dominated: the K- 12 school market.

           Schools were already in the midst of a push to install more
           machines to take advantage of the Internet, an initiative
           generated largely by the federal government and technology
           companies. Microsoft rode the momentum to market Microsoft
           Office, a suite of business programs that includes PowerPoint,
           as an essential tool for education as well. The company offered
           software discounts, primarily to school districts, sponsored
           workshops for teachers, offered free online tutorials and handed
           out sample lesson plans.

           The strategy worked. Among elementary and secondary schools,
           Microsoft Office is the most popular software package for word
           processing, spreadsheets and multimedia projects. More than 95
           percent of public school districts in the United States are using
           or intend to purchase Microsoft Office this year, according to
           Quality Education Data, a market research company. Among
           individual schools, more than 75 percent are using the product.

           "Some people ask, `Isn't Office too much?' " said Marcia
           Kuszmaul, industry relations manager in Microsoft's Education
           Solutions Group. "The answer is, Absolutely not. Students push
           Office. Bill Gates has said that students give the toughest
           workouts to our products."

           Gina Herring, a science teacher in Glen Ridge, N.J., is an
           advocate of PowerPoint, as long, she says, as it is used as a
           supplement to reports and oral presentations, not as a
           replacement for them.

           At the Ridgewood Avenue Upper Elementary School, where
           Ms. Herring teaches sixth graders, she said she had seen her
           students develop better organizational skills using PowerPoint.

           "It allows me to check their comprehension," she said, "and
           allows them to show what they have learned in a creative way,
           in a sequenced way."

           Ms. Herring is such a proponent of the product that she held a
           training session this month for fellow teachers in New Jersey.
           Her sixth-grade students led some of the workshops, walking
           over to teachers' desks when they raised their hands for help.
           Later, a student who said he did not like to talk in front of an
           audience demonstrated how he had added sound to a slide show
           about a book he had read. As each slide appeared, the student's
           voice came from the speakers, reading rows of sentences, each
           starting with a bullet point.

           Gary Hank, a math teacher at Lopatcong Township Elementary
           School in Warren County, N.J., was one of more than two dozen
           teachers who crowded into the workshop. "The kids would go
           nuts over this stuff," he said.

           But even students seem divided in their enthusiasm for
           PowerPoint. Back in Union City, some of Mr. Bennetti's
           students were so eager to use the program that they had it open
           and running before he told them to get started. Several of them
           waved their hands in the air, asking questions about "A Raisin
           in the Sun" that resulted in conversations that went far beyond
           the six- and seven- word phrases they typed next to the bullets.

           But a few floors below, in a computer class of eighth graders
           who were presenting PowerPoint projects, the spirit was less

           The teacher, Anna Rubio, had asked the students to use
           PowerPoint to create an electronic portfolio, describing and
           linking to digital projects that they had done during the year.

           One by one, students lumbered up to a computer at the front of
           the dimly lighted room and opened their slides, which appeared
           on a screen behind them. They did not say a word or even look
           at their audience, but simply clicked the mouse button, drilling
           through their presentations in silence. Wild graphics, garish
           colors and bold titles flashed by. Their classmates paid almost
           no attention and, like bored employees stuck in a late-day board
           meeting, looked at their own computer screens instead.

           "I asked them if they wanted to read it or show it," Ms. Rubio
           said. "I guess no one wanted to read it."
Quentin Carranza, a kindergarted pupil from Lemon Grove, California, gets help from her teacher, Sandee Tessier. Ms. Tessier's class also did a "Five Little Piggies presentation.

New Yorker Cartoon

The Level of Discourse Continues to Slide

By JOHN SCHWARTZ  -  NY Times Sept 28, 2003. 

Is there anything so deadening to the soul as a PowerPoint presentation?

Critics have complained about the computerized slide shows, produced with the ubiquitous software from Microsoft, since the technology was first introduced 10 years ago. Last week, The New Yorker magazine included a cartoon showing a job interview in hell: "I need someone well versed in the art of torture," the interviewer says. "Do you know PowerPoint?"

Once upon a time, a party host could send dread through the room by saying, "Let me show you the slides from our trip!" Now, that dread has spread to every corner of the culture, with schoolchildren using the program to write book reports, and corporate managers blinking mindlessly at PowerPoint charts and bullet lists projected onto giant screens as a disembodied voice reads

• every

• word

• on

• every

• slide.

When the bullets are flying, no one is safe.

But there is a new crescendo of criticism that goes beyond the objection to PowerPoint's tendency to turn any information into a dull recitation of look-alike factoids. Based on nearly a decade of experience with the software and its effects, detractors argue that PowerPoint-muffled messages have real consequences, perhaps even of life or death.

Before the fatal end of the shuttle Columbia's mission last January, with the craft still orbiting the earth, NASA engineers used a PowerPoint presentation to describe their investigation into whether a piece of foam that struck the shuttle's wing during launching had caused serious damage. Edward Tufte, a Yale professor who is an influential expert on the presentation of visual information, published a critique of that presentation on the World Wide Web last March. A key slide, he said, was "a PowerPoint festival of bureaucratic hyper-rationalism."

Among other problems, Mr. Tufte said, a crucial piece of information — that the chunk of foam was hundreds of times larger than anything that had ever been tested — was relegated to the last point on the slide, squeezed into insignificance on a frame that suggested damage to the wing was minor.

The independent board that investigated the Columbia disaster devoted an entire page of its final report last month to Mr. Tufte's analysis. The board wrote that "it is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation."

In fact, the board said: "During its investigation, the board was surprised to receive similar presentation slides from NASA officials in place of technical reports. The board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA."

The board echoed a message that Mr. Tufte and other critics have been trying to disseminate for years. "I would refer to it as a virus, rather than a narrative form," said Jamie McKenzie, an educational consultant. "It's done more damage to the culture."

These are strong words for a program that traces its pedagogical heritage to the blackboard or overhead projector. But the relentless and, some critics would say, lazy use of the program as a replacement for real discourse — as with the NASA case — continues to inspire attacks.

It has also become so much a part of our culture that, like Kleenex and Xerox, PowerPoint has become a generic term for any bullet-ridden presentation.

Dan Leach, Microsoft's chief product manager for the Office software, which includes PowerPoint, said that the package had 400 million users around the world, and that his customers loved PowerPoint. When early versions of Office for small business did not include PowerPoint, customers protested, he said, and new versions include it.

"We're proud of it," he said, pointing out that the product is simply a tool — "a blank for you to fill in" with ideas and information.

"I feel like the guy who makes canvas and the No. 2 green viridian paint," Mr. Leach said. "I'm being asked to comment on the art show."

His point is shared by plenty of people who say the criticism of PowerPoint is misdirected. "The tool doesn't tell you how to write," said Bill Atkinson, the creator of HyperCard, an earlier program considered by many to be the precursor to PowerPoint. "It just helps you express yourself," he said. "The more tools people have to choose from the better off we are."

It's likely, then, that PowerPoint is here to stay — everywhere. And not always for the worse. At the wedding reception of Lina Tilman and Anders Corr last year in New Haven, guests made two PowerPoint presentations. They were everything that slide shows usually are not: wry and heartfelt works that used the tired conventions of the form to poke fun at the world of presentations and celebrate the marriage.

NASA apparently still lacks a similar sense of irony. Earlier this month, the space agency held a three-day workshop in Houston to give reporters a firsthand view of its return-to-flight plans. Included in the handouts were dozens of PowerPoint slides.

from NY Times