Every time you use Powerpoint, Edward Tufte calls in a targeted drone attack on a kitten

April 27, 2010 at 1:04 pm 10 comments

| Gabriel |

The NY Times has an article on the infamous Afghan pasta Powerpoint slide, and more broadly the military’s addiction to Powerpoint and the efforts of a few brave officers to detox (h/t Slashdot). [Also see a discussion of this slide at O&M]. This ties into a recent paper published in OS and also discussed at O&M on how Powerpoint has structured business culture.

I use Powerpoint (actually Keynote), but my style is to have it be almost entirely figures and use text very sparingly. (Here are a few examples from my undergrad class: ex 1, ex 2, ex 3). The only place I’ll use a bullet list is to sum up the hypotheses at the very end of a theory section before I move on to analysis/simulation. I think a good rule of thumb is that if somebody could read your ppt file and understand what you were talking about, then it’s a bad ppt file. A good ppt file should be opaque out of the context of the talk itself. If you need to share it with someone who wasn’t there, give them a tape of the talk or your notes. This isn’t deliberate obscurantism but a simple heuristic for understanding if you’re falling into the common trap of your audience skimming ahead in your bullet points and getting bored as they wait for you to (verbally) move on to the next point. I’m convinced people fill their ppt with text because they’re afraid of forgetting their talk, but I’m going to let you in on some ancient wisdom that was known to our ancestors but was forgotten sometime around 1998: keep your fucking notes on a piece of paper that only you can see. Because when you put your outline on the LCD projector itself, the terrorists have won.


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Allegory of the quant Grepmerge


  • 1. Vincent  |  April 27, 2010 at 8:14 pm

    Examples are behind the ucla gate

  • 2. Vincent  |  April 27, 2010 at 8:21 pm

    Seems fine now!

    • 3. gabrielrossman  |  April 27, 2010 at 10:40 pm

      weird, the links are supposed to be ungated. you can also get all my course materials on itunes if you have any problems with the UCLA moodle server.

  • 4. Jay Livingston  |  April 28, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    It seems more like a business presentation than an academic lecture version, but for those who haven’t seen it here’s the PowerPoint version of The Gettysburg Address.

  • 6. Elizabeth  |  May 1, 2010 at 6:21 pm

    I share your strategy, and am endlessly frustrated by being read to off a screen that I too can see.

    But I’m also preparing to give a talk before an international audience and reluctantly considering putting more text on my slides (currently a series of graphs and graphical representations of key predictions/theory), to make things easier for non-native English speakers who may have an easier time reading English than understanding it aloud. If you or your readers have any suggestions about how to be accessible to this audience without making everyone bored silly, I would much appreciate it.

    • 7. gabrielrossman  |  May 1, 2010 at 7:21 pm

      i actually agree with you — language barriers between speaker and audience are about the only good excuse for the usual sins of PPT

    • 8. gabrielrossman  |  May 1, 2010 at 10:58 pm

      ps, you could also try the strategy i use in my graduate statistics class, which is to have minimalist powerpoint during the talk then distribute detailed notes after the talk. i fond this works very well for my stats class but it’s a lot of work

      • 9. Elizabeth  |  May 2, 2010 at 2:45 pm

        That’s a great idea to consider. Thanks!

  • 10. jimiadams  |  May 9, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    Coming late to this one, but i have to disagree a bit here. As someone who is a *very* visual learner/thinker – the audio of most presentations/talks is very often lost on me. i *need* some text to keep up. i’m not asking for paragraphs of text, but do find basic outlines pretty necessary for me to not lose even the most basic aims of the most basic talks. Presentations are neither performance art nor simple information dissemination. i think too often we try to force people toward one end of that continuum or the other (c.f., humanities “read papers” norm for the other end of that). To reach the widest breadth of the audience present i think instead we often ought to shoot somewhere in the middle.

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