By LAURENCE ZUCKERMAN
The title of today's
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
each of my points in a
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
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
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
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.
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
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
(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,
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
"We are visual
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
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
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
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
The Dale Carnegie
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
people would start up
Powerpoint and just stare at it," he said.
Microsoft's answer was
"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
autocontent wizard in Powerpoint has become
increasingly sophisticated. About 15 percent of users,
Sinofsky said, now start their presentations with one of
The latest version of
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.
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 is just a
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,
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
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
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?
had other questions on his mind. Like his classmates,
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.
the layout. He typed "conflicts" and it appeared,
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.
John Bennetti, had started to walk through the rows of
his eyebrows raised.
"Enhance it when you are done," Mr. Bennetti said emphatically. "When you are done."
— the must-have presentation software of the
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.
get to high school, you will need a lot of PowerPoint," said Nestor
student in Mr. Bennetti's class, "and in the real world, too. This gives us time to practice."
as PowerPoint has its detractors in the corporate world, some educators
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.
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.
come in and they have tears in their eyes because they can't
what these little kids
are doing," Ms. Tessier said. "It's part of their day, like picking up a pencil."
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.
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
also encourages her pupils to write accounts of
their lives and present them in front of the class.
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."
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.
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.
contend that PowerPoint's emphasis on bullets and
animated graphics is anathema to the kind of critical thinking
students should be learning in class.
of PowerPointlessness," said Jamie McKenzie, the
publisher of From Now On, an online journal about educational
a director of online professional
development at the University of Northern Iowa, said that she
was offering courses this summer to help teachers combat
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
a cookie-cutter mentality," said Jerry Crystal, the
technology coordinator at Carmen Arace Middle School in
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
Ridgewood Avenue Upper Elementary School, where
Ms. Herring teaches sixth graders, she said she had seen her
students develop better organizational skills using PowerPoint.
me to check their comprehension," she said, "and
allows them to show what they have learned in a creative way,
in a sequenced way."
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.
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.
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.
floors below, in a computer class of eighth graders
who were presenting PowerPoint projects, the spirit was less
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, 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.
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.|
Critics have complained about the computerized slide shows, produced
with the ubiquitous software from
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
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
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.