Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Why is PowerPoint so bad?

You've seen hundreds of examples of horrendous PowerPoint slides. Edward Tufte even argues that PowerPoint is evil.

But the problem is not the software. The problem is how it is used.

Richard Mayer takes this argument one step further:

"Asking whether computers are a good instructional technology is like asking whether books are a good instructional technology. It all depends on how they are used, that is, on the instructional method" (June 2005 issue of Educational Psychology Review).

Seth Godin contends that PowerPoint presentations are used as crutches by presenters and audiences alike. The presenter uses it as a teleprompter. The audience uses the print out of slides as a verbatim record of the presentation.

Godin suggests five rules to rescue your next presentation:

  1. No more than six words on a slide.
  2. Use professional images.
  3. No dissolves, spins or other transitions.
  4. Never use the sound effects that are built in to the program.
  5. Don't hand out print-outs of your slides.

Garr Reynolds offers these suggestions:

  • Use a remote.
  • Blank the screen when appropriate.
  • Limit the special effects.
  • Use high-quality graphics.
  • Choose your fonts well.
  • Don't use built-in sound effects.

But Richard Mayer sees the problem as much deeper. A few tips will not solve the problem. What is needed is a good theory and some real-world research.

It is worthwhile to distinguish between two possible goals in making a PowerPoint presentation — information presentation, in which the goal is to present information to the audience, and cognitive guidance, in which the goal is to guide the audience in their processing of the presented information. When your goal is information presentation, PowerPoint slides can be full of information that may be extremely hard to process by the audience. However, since your goal is simply information presentation, you are not concerned with whether or not the audience can process the presented information. When your goal is cognitive guidance, you want to make sure that the audience members build appropriate knowledge in their memories. Your job is to communicate in a way that will have the desired impact on the audience, so you need to design your slides so they are consistent with how people learn. In my opinion, many of the examples of misuses of PowerPoint occur when the slides are designed to present information rather than to guide cognitive processing. In short, like any communication medium—including books — PowerPoint can be misused as a device for presenting information without regard for how the audience will process the presented information (bold added).

In his Multimedia Learning, Mayer explains the three assumptions that form the foundation for his work:

  1. Visual and auditory information are processed through separate "channels."
  2. Each channel is limited in its ability to process information.
  3. Processing information is an active cognitive process designed to construct coherent mental representations.

Mayer explains that most presentations are focused on the technology:

It is worthwhile to distinguish between a technology-centered approach and a learner-centered approach to the use of educational technologies including PowerPoint. In a technology-centered approach, the focus is on the capabilities of cutting edge technology. Thus, we would be interested in the effects of each of the many features of PowerPoint. In a learner-centered approach, the focus is on the way that people learn and process information. Thus, we would be interested in finding ways to use the features of PowerPoint to support people's natural ways of learning, that is, as aids to human learning.

He explains that humans are not information processors. They are meaning makers. And this requires three distinct steps:

  1. Selecting what is important.
  2. Organizing what has been selected.
  3. Integrating the new meaning with previous knowledge.

In my next post I'll list his "research-based principles for the design of multimedia instructional messages."

So what do you think? Does this theory fit with your own experience?

Pastor Rod

"Helping you become the person God created you to be"


M. Pease said...

Pastor Rod

I'm afraid that I must disagree with you.

Part of the problem with PowerPoint (and most other "helpful" software) is that the programmers make it easy to use poorly and difficult to use well.

While they make it easy to use the cheesy built-in effects and graphics choices, they make no effort whatever to teach users the basics of design and communication, nor do they suggest that it might be worth while persuing such a course.

The reason for this? They themselves have little or no appreciation for good design and, if you've ever read a software manual, you might have noticed that they aren't much on communication either.

That's my story, and I'm stickin' to it!

Pastor Rod said...


Yes, it is easier to use PowerPoint badly than it is to use it well. And some of the software design encourages sloppy use.

But it still can be used as an effective tool.

I find it interesting that Microsoft hired designers to develop color pallets but did little to address the common misuses of their program.

But I think the fault is with the users. People are so used to using PowerPoint in a certain way (maybe because they have been trained that way by Microsoft) that they would have rebelled, if it had been changed in a substantial way.

Thanks for your comments.


jeff franczak said...

I like Mayer’s point that humans are not information processors. They are meaning makers. This provides an entirely different way of thinking about communication.

“Making meaning” is probably how I generally take in information—I try to make sense of it based on what I already know. (Or should I say, “think I know”?) I’ll also associate the new information with my own past experiences. Then, if I perceive that the new information is helpful, I’ll think about how to apply it and possibly save the original document for future reference. (Communication is all about perception, but that's another topic.)

I’m not inclined to blame PowerPoint for bad presentations any more than I would have blamed whiteboards for unhelpful college lectures. I’d say “the buck stops” at the creator/deliverer of the presentation; it is their responsibility to provide quality content and good delivery. That said, it wasn’t always or entirely something lacking on the part of the professor. I was not always the student I should have been.

I’m guilty of some bad presentations myself, so I’m not going to point any fingers. I suspect, however, that my audience was gracious for three main reasons: (1) presentations do not come easy for many of us (i.e., grace prompted by “putting yourself in the presenter’s shoes”), (2) the audience was interested in the information regardless of my ability to present it well, and (3) they knew they would leave with handouts they could try to make sense of later.