The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint

Review: The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, by Edward R. Tufte

Publisher: Graphics Press
Copyright: September 2003
ISBN: 0-9613921-5-0
Pages: 27

This is more of a pamphlet or an essay than a book, and on the first reading I didn't write a review of it because of that. But the content is so notable and excellent and the quality of the printing (thanks to Tufte's Graphics Press) is so high that I think it warrants a full review. I believe the content of this essay, at least in one form, is present as a chapter in Tufte's latest book, Beautiful Evidence.

Tufte has written a series of exceptional and beautifully produced books on presentation of information: graphs, diagrams, maps, and similar presentations. His normal style in all of these works is to show and critique examples, showing both positive and negative ways of presenting information and sometimes taking a presentation and rewriting it to improve it. The strongest parts of these books are usually his pointed, trenchant, and often funny critiques of the worst examples. This essay, composed almost entirely of the sort of horrible content regularly produced by PowerPoint, is a delight.

Similar to the analysis of presentations about the Challenger o-rings in Visual Explanations, the centerpiece of The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint is an analysis of the horrible presentation of the problems with the shuttle Columbia before its disastrous return. Tufte uses this presentation, done with PowerPoint in the normal bullet outline format that such slide software encourages, as a compelling example of muddled thinking, confusing typography, false summaries, hidden information, and ineffective communication. His analysis is backed up by the final report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which calls out PowerPoint specifically:

The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA.

Tufte goes from there to attack the reduction of thinking to bulleted lists, the PowerPoint graph templates and tables, the low resolution of projected slides, and the standard methods used for presentations in businesses and organizations all over the world. He's in fine form here, pulling no punches. Everyone who has sat through interminable meetings where bullet points of meaningless buzzwords are slowly dribbled out via overhead projector will be cheering him on, and he backs up his disgust with specific examples, concrete suggestions for improvement (mostly around using higher-density supporting documents like handouts). He also uses satire quite effectively, including a hilarious rewrite of the Gettysburgh Address as a PowerPoint presentation by Peter Norvig.

As with all Tufte publications, this is a bit spendy for what you get ($7 for a short, although full-sized, pamphlet from Graphics Press), but the paper, printing, layout, color, and production quality are first-rate. This is a dense example of the analysis that Tufte does best, and while it doesn't teach on as broad of a front as his books, I recommend it for anyone who gives presentations or has to listen to them. I don't know if anything can get rid of PowerPoint culture, but I wish this essay were universally read.

Rating: 9 out of 10

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Posted: 2007-09-14 23:21 — Why no comments?

Just so we're clear, I'm reading this next. I've wrestled with this off and on ever since I knew enough about anything to be asked to give presentations on it. The compelling thing about PowerPoint is that it's available, ubiquitous, and pre-loaded with the kind of dumbed-down pablum that allows you to get away with knowing less about your topic than you ideally should. So maybe it's merely genuine experts who should avoid it--for the rest of us it's perfect.

Posted by Jon at 2007-09-16 15:54

Thanks, Russ, for having spoken about _The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint_. I ordered it and I have just taken the time to read it (it is very short: 32 pages).
As you say, the content of this essay is "Beautiful Evidence". Well-formed sentences which are content-oriented and audience-oriented should be used along with great tables and statistics (and not dummy little awful tables).
To conclude, I wish to mention the best sentence in the book (to my mind): "PowerPoint allows speakers to pretend that they are giving a real talk, and audiences to pretend that they are listening". That is so true!! And interesting presentations should not lead to such a behaviour.

Posted by Julien √ČLIE at 2007-12-16 07:41

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