Friday, May 18, 2007

Evil Tools or Evil Uses?

(originally posted to Tata Interactive Systems' corporate blog)

I've noticed a slowly growing trend in the marketplace, and I think it's time it's questioned.

It has become quite in vogue to bad-mouth and shun the use of Powerpoint in presentations.

I was first exposed to this stance in a presentation by Edward Tufte (author of several fantastic books on information visualization and communication). He made a mark for himself by declaring that "Powerpoint is Evil", both in a WIRED article and in a longer whitepaper.

More recently, Elliot Masie dubbed his newly minted "Learning 200X" conferences to be "PPT-free Zones", instructing presenters to leave their slides at home in hopes that it would foster greater discussion and interaction amongst attendees (and this underlying objective may have been accomplished, as the sessions *did* move from being lectures to conversations).

Just last week I spent a terrific day in Washington DC talking about Stories and Conversations at an event hosted by the Smithsonian Associates. One of the great speakers that presented was Larry Prusak of IBM KM fame. I really enjoyed his talk, which was PPT-free, but instead of simply quietly adopting that presentation stance and moving ahead, he made a pointed announcement of his disdain of Powerpoint. He even went so far as to say that he uninstalled the app from the MS Office Suite on his computer.

Finally (and completely serendipitously), this month's 'Big Question' on the Learning Curcuits Blog is precisely on this topic - the What/When/Why of PPT. The BQ seems to have been prompted by an Austrailian press article that uses Dr. John Sweller's Cognitive Load Theory to explain why most PPTs are so head-droppingly awful (and the link makes terrific sense to me).

In all of these cases (and the dozens I haven't mentioned, some of which are here), I can't help but think that the primary flag-wavers of the Anti-Powerpoint movement are projecting their disgust and anger in the wrong direction. Powerpoint is simply a tool, like a hammer, or a lawnmower. In and of itself, it's not really something that can be deemed "evil". It is the way the tool is leveraged that gives it "value" (good or bad).

Don't get me wrong - I've been the victim (and... umm... the perpetrator) of more than a few AWFUL powerpoint presentations. You know the ones - where the audience is given a live (often monotone) narration of (text-laden) slides that are linearly displayed. I am in no way defending this embarrassment of communication - I'm simply pointing out that the fault sits with the *presenter*, not the tool (despite the fact that the tool may make it easy for the lazy to use it in bone-headed ways).

Just because a hammer can be used to both frame a house for the victims of a natural disaster and murder someone, that doesn't make it inherently "evil" or "good". Those value-laden terms can only be reasonably used to describe the users of the tool based on what they chose to do with it. When Larry said he had removed Powerpoint from his computer, for its nature of promoting one-way communication, I wanted to ask him if he had also removed Word? According to the logic of his argument for uninstalling Powerpoint, any word processor should also be shunned - after all, documents are monologues, not dialogs, right?

I'm reminded of a email exchange I recently had with Geetha Krishnan, a colleague at TIS. In our exchange, I was reminded of an old argument Socrates made against the adoption of books:

Socrates: ….If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is not true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.

Phaedrus: . . . I agree that the man of Thebes is right in what he said about writing.

Socrates: Then anyone who leaves behind him a written manual, and likewise anyone who takes it over from him, on the supposition that such writing will provide something reliable and permanent, must be exceedingly simple-minded; he must really be ignorant of Ammon's utterance, if he imagines that written words can do anything more than remind one who knows that which the writing is concerned with.

Phaedrus: Very true.

Socrates: You know, Phaedrus, that's the strange thing about writing, which makes it truly analogous to painting. The painter's products stand before us as though they were alive, but if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence. It is the same with written words; they seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever. And once a thing is put in writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn't know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong. And when it is ill-treated and unfairly abused it always needs its parent to come to its help, being unable to defend or help itself.

Phaedrus: Once again you are perfectly right.
(from The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Eds. Edith Hamilton and H. Cairns. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1963. pp. 520-21. 274D-276B.)

A presentation can be given effectively or ineffectively using the same tool (or without a tool at all). It's time to focus on the actual source of the problem and stop making simple-minded arguments against red herring causes.

Those who create and deliver Powerpoint presentations with packed paragraphs of 10-point text, meaningless clip-art, and irritating spinning and flashing animations should be sent to a class on effective presentations. Simply taking the (abused) tools away leaves these culprits none-the-wiser to the error of their ways, and discounts the communicative power that Powerpoint can render when placed in the right hands.

Just as Socrates threw the baby out with the bathwater regarding the power and benefit of the written word, I think those who argue that Powerpoint should be nuked are making a similar error. This suggestion is analogous to saying that duiring your next presentation, you should require the audience to close their eyes as you speak - to turn off one of the primary means of informational reception.

Visuals play a powerful role in communications, so why would anyone make a broad-brush suggestion that there's benefit in prohibiting them? Can you imagine speaking about Art without visuals? How about good User Interface Design? How about long-horizon trends in any one of a variety of domains? Images often instantly 'say' more than is able to be easily enunciated in words or text.

"A picture is worth a thousand words" isn't just a meaningless phrase, you know...