Ah PowerPoint, the thing that everyone seems to loathe when they walk into a meeting yet still, when it comes time for them to present something, it’s the first tool they look to for getting their idea across. Indeed in my professional career I’ve spent many hours standing in front of a projection screen, the wall behind me illuminated by slide after slide of information I was hoping to convey to my audience, jabbering on about what the words behind me meant. It seems that every year there’s someone calling for the death of the defacto presentation tool with them lamenting its use in many well publicised scandals and failures. However like the poor workman who blames his tools PowerPoint is not responsible for much of the ills aimed at it. That, unfortunately, lies with the people who use it.
PowerPoint, like every Microsoft Office product, when put in the hands of the masses ends up being used in ways that it never should have been. This does not necessarily mean the tool is bad, indeed I’d like to see a valid argument for the death of say Word given the grave misuses it has been put to, more that it was likely not the most appropriate medium for the message it was trying to convey or the audience it was presented to. When used in its most appropriate setting, which I contend is as a sort of public prompt card for both the speaker and the audience, PowerPoint works exceptionally well for conveying ideas and concepts. What it’s not great at doing is presenting complex data in a readily digestible format.
But then again there are very few tools that can.
You see many of the grave misgivings that have been attributed to PowerPoint are the result of its users attempting to cram an inordinate amount of information into a single panel, hoping that it somehow all makes its way across to the audience. PowerPoint, on its own, simply does not have the capability to distill information down in that matter and as such relies on the user’s ability to do that. If the user then lacks the ability to do that both coherent and accurately then the result will, obviously, not be usable. There’s no real easy solution to this as creating infographics that convey real information in a digestible format is a world unto itself but blaming the tool for the ills of its users, and thus calling for the banning of its use, seems awfully shortsighted.
Indeed if it was not for PowerPoint then it would be another one of the Microsoft Office suite that would be met with the same derision as they all have the capability to display information in some capacity, just not in the format that most presentations follow. Every time people have lamented PowerPoint to me I’ve asked them to suggest an alternative tool that solves the issues they speak of and every time I have not recieved a satisfactory answer. The fact of the matter is that, as a presentation tool, PowerPoint is one of the top in its class and that’s why so many turn to it. The fact that it’s found at the center of a lot of well publicised problems isn’t because of its problematic use, just that it’s the most popular tool to use.
What really needs to improve is the way in which take intricate and complex data and distill that down to its essence for imparting it on others. This is an incredibly wide and diverse problem space, one that entire companies have founded their business models on. It is not something that we pin on a simple presentation tool, it is a fundamental shift away from thinking that complex ideas can be summed up in a handful words and a couple pretty pictures. Should we want to impart knowledge upon someone else then it is up to us to take them on that journey, crafting an experience that leaves them with enough information for them to be able to impart that idea on someone else. If you’re not capable of doing nor PowerPoint nor any other piece of software will help you.