Saturday, May 14, 2005

The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, by Edward R. Tufte

The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, by Edward R. Tufte

Tufte is a man that clearly feels confident in his opinions. This essay rails around the central thought that Microsoft PowerPoint is a terrible tool for serious presentations. He makes several really good arguments in this vein, but his style is so arrogant that I believe his points get lost in the rhetoric. Combined with his haughty tone, the impact of his statements are greatly diminished.

The highlight is where he systematically destroys a presentation by Boeing for NASA assessing the impact of the wing damage the shuttle Columbia acquired during takeoff. This is a very enlightening passage that shows how important clear communication can be. If NASA has gotten a better picture of the seriousness of the damage, we might have had a very different result. Boeing doesn’t appear to be intentionally misleading here, but tragically ineffective.

In the closing pages he addresses the most serious flaw in his argument — that the people using the software are to blame, not the software itself. Tufte’s argument is that because PowerPoint makes it easy to generate facile presentations, that is all you get. He seems to think that because PP can be used for bad things it should be avoided entirely. In my opinion this is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but I do admit I will put more thought into using PP for my next presentation.

First Sentence:
In corporate and government bureaucracies, the standard method for making a presentation is to talk about a list of points organized onto slides projected up on the wall.

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