Brett Hetherington

Banner photos: Cornelia Kraft

Post Power-Point Trauma Syndrome

[A version of this article was first published in ‘Catalonia Today’ - July 2010.]

[US Air force comedy flight patch.]

Have you ever sat through and silently suffered during a PowerPoint presentation?

Most likely, you have more than a few times. Together with ten other teachers, I have been asked (or is it told?) to do a PowerPoint presentation about my History elective subject for secondary level students at the international school where I teach, near Barcelona.

I will not do it. 

The accepted “wisdom” is that in business (and therefore schools too, because money-makers know best) you use PowerPoint as automatically as you put on a suit and tie. It is generally taken as a given that “PP” is the best way to explain things to a group of people. 

PowerPoint is probably the world’s most popular business “tool.” Undoubtedly, it misused by many, but I (along with increasing numbers of its victims) say it is by design, bad for communication.  

Seemingly, there are a few brave souls who dare to go against the conventional idea that PowerPoint is ‘the way it’s done.’ And they are not only from audiences who have sat through too many uninspiring and confusing ‘PP’ presentations.

One director of a large medical company admits: “a presentation (in whatever form) is telling a story, and stories require careful assembly. Yet, to the uninitiated or those who simply don't know to ask, PowerPoint by itself is a device that reinforces bad habits.” 

Others see different reasons for avoiding PP. Richard Rumelt, a professor of strategy at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management in the US has been quoted saying that: “If I had my way, small groups…would be absolutely prohibited from doing PowerPoint presentations! Using bullet points so much drives out thinking. If you ask a group to put aside the bullet points and just write three coherent paragraphs about what is changing in an industry and why, the difference is incredible. Having to link your thoughts, giving reasons and qualifications, makes you a more careful thinker -- and a better communicator.”

Les Posen, a workplace training psychologist gives the damning examples of former US Secretary of State Colin Powell visiting the United Nations and offering them a PowerPoint-based reason to invade Iraq as well as a report that condemns NASA reliance on PowerPoint’s and its contribution to the Challenger disaster.

PowerPoint’s ability to bewilder its prey was also recently highlighted by UStelevision comedian Jon Stewart when he satirised the PP slide that is supposed to “map out” the complex US military strategy in Afghanistan. General Stanley A. McChrystal, the leader of American and NATO forces there was quoted in a New York Times article last month saying “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war!”

But there are other drawbacks to PowerPoint too. A different comment from a tertiary educator makes the point that: “…students whose [writing] contained lots of 'relational' language ([such as] because, before, consequently) did not use those words in their PP presentations - as a result, causation dropped out of the communication. 

So, if there are fundamental flaws in PP because it generally creates a confusing style of communication, I ask the question: What does the typical PowerPoint text actually try to say? Here’s my own example:

  • Key-word/Image-based (presenter-focused)
    • Verbal explanation obligatory (partial only)
      • Effect: attention-divided (reduced conceptional attainment)
Or now the same meaning but instead put into (non-PP) sentences: 

A basic problem with PowerPoint is that (as its name suggests) users of it make points. These points must be shortened text, sometimes with seemingly eye-catching graphics or images. The templates for PowerPoint do not allow for fully explaining a point with words: that must be done with the spoken word during the presentation, which means that (even in the unlikely event that it is done clearly) understanding will be lost or very limited because the PP visual slide is what most people will focus on – not the oral description of it. 

Because of these kinds of downsides, the possible death of PowerPoint presentations was made by Anna Patty, Education Editor of one Australian newspaper article, but this prediction seems to have been made in haste. She refers to research findings from the University of New South Wales’ Professor John Sweller stating that “the human brain processes and retains more information if it is digested in either its verbal or written form, but not both at the same time.” He found that "The use of the PowerPoint presentation has been a disaster. It should be ditched."

My own conclusions are the same. I do not want play any part in creating the next generation of PP users. Instead of being just one more of the ten teachers who will be subjecting their students to the friendly fire of bullet points and grammarless sludge-phrases, I will be giving them a one page photocopied hand-out. This sheet will have full sentences. The sentences will be short but they will have unfashionable conjunctions in them, including written words that help to make the ideas clear.

Words like: ‘because.’