Why PowerPoint rules the business world

In case of emergency, break glass

The issue is this: PowerPoint is a visual tool, and we are a visually illiterate society.

By Dave Gray

11:34 am
Thu, May 22, 2008

A CALL FOR VISUAL LITERACY

In many organizations, the beginning and end of any business activity is marked by the PowerPoint presentation. In the early stages of an initiative, PowerPoint is used in strategy sessions, to present proposals and put forth plans. Later, it’s used for updates and progress reports. In the final stages, it’s used to report back and to present findings and conclusions. PowerPoint is everywhere, and it shows no signs of going away anytime soon.

Why is it used so broadly? And how did this simple tool become so entrenched in business? Here are a few thoughts:

  1. PowerPoint is accessible. For the novice, it’s easy to learn and use.
  2. PowerPoint is everywhere. Pretty much everyone has it, or has the ability to view a file. This makes it easy to share ideas and generally move meaning around. Slides can be borrowed, stolen, recycled and re-used.
  3. PowerPoint is flexible. The same document that is used to present information in a meeting or conference, can, with little or no modification, be emailed as a document or shared online, retaining much of its meaning.
  4. PowerPoint is easy to read. PowerPoint documents can be scanned and understood more rapidly than text documents. Because they are primarily visual they tend to be more easily understood and remembered.
  5. PowerPoint is modular. It can be broken down into single slides, which can be arranged and rearranged into numerous different sequences. Over time you can build up a storehouse of slides that represent your – or your team’s – collective knowledge about any subject, which can be distributed, shared, discussed and modified as things evolve over time.
  6. PowerPoint is powerful. For the more experienced user, it’s a powerful multimedia tool, with animation and other advanced effects. It’s easy to add information of any kind: Video, charts, photographs, maps – just about anything that can be digitized can be added to PowerPoint.

People use PowerPoint to represent knowledge, and the main element is relatively small and useful atomic unit we call the slide.

So what’s the problem?
“Death by PowerPoint” is the popular term for the much-dreaded meeting where a presenter subjects his audience to slide after slide, each one densely packed with bullet points or complex, confusing information, leaving the audience bored, frustrated confused.

But PowerPoint is not the enemy. When used appropriately, slides, and short sequences of slides, are excellent tools to represent knowledge. A good slide contains visual and verbal information in equal measure, and as an “information container,” a slide is just about the perfect size for memory and retention: big enough to hold meaningful information, but not so big that it’s likely to become overwhelming. A well-designed slide – one that’s comfortable to view and read – holds just about the same amount of information that you can hold in your short-term memory.

The problem is much, much deeper than PowerPoint. The issue is this: PowerPoint is a visual tool, and we are a visually illiterate society.

What do I mean by this?
In the modern world we are constantly confronted – you might say bombarded – with visual information: Television and film are the primary culprits, followed closely by billboards, brochures, and, yes, bullet points. Advertisers have long known that visualizing an idea is one of the quickest and most reliable ways to insert it into a human brain.

Due to this visual assault, we have, over time, become more sophisticated in our reading of visual information. In a world where information is digital, where photos can be altered in Photoshop and where films can show impossible things like dinosaurs and talking animals with a high degree of realism, we understand that seeing is no longer believing.

But this kind of visual sophistication is not literacy. Literacy is the ability to both read and write. If a child could read written language but not write it – if he could read a mathematical equation but not perform such operations himself – then we would not consider him prepared for success in the world.

In our school systems we teach our children the three R’s – reading, writing and arithmetic, because we believe them to be fundamental skills for successful integration in society. But the three R’s are no longer enough. Our world is changing fast – faster than we can keep up with our historical modes of thinking and communicating. Visual literacy – the ability to both read and write visual information; the ability to learn visually; to think and solve problems in the visual domain – will, as the information revolution evolves, become a requirement for success in business and in life.

PowerPoint has risen to its current position for two reasons:

  1. We’re processing more information than ever before, at unprecedented volumes
  2. We don’t have as much time to read anymore, and
  3. Much of the information we need to share is non-linear in nature.

PowerPoint is a visual medium. If you want to convey information visually, it’s the most accessible and ubiquitous tool there is. The answer to bad PowerPoint is not to eliminate the tool, but to improve our visual literacy. We need to teach visual literacy in our schools, and to our business people. We need an ABC book of visual language (a project I am working on).

We’re leaving an industrial age and entering an information age, yet we continue to teach, and operate our schools, as if they were factories. In an information age, visually literate societies will succeed and thrive. Shouldn’t we be one of them?

As always, your comments, thoughts and feedback are much appreciated.


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5 comments

  1. dharder commented on May 27, 2008 | Permalink

    Any electronic presentation should be designed in such a way that YOU, the presenter, is the center of attention. So many times my colleagues will “hide behind” the slide and put so many words on the screen that the viewers read and not listen to a word you say. Strike a balance!

  2. Christophe Harrer commented on January 17, 2009 | Permalink

    Thank you Dave for sharing your great understanding of the power of PowerPoint. We should change our education system: both our verbal and our visual communication skills need a lot of improvements.

  3. Dave Gray commented on January 17, 2009 | Permalink

    Christophe, I agree fully!

  4. Megan commented on December 27, 2010 | Permalink

    Just to mention… in new wonderful year !

  5. Communications Forum commented on January 27, 2011 | Permalink

    PowePoint can be a great communications tool. As it continues to develop, I think it will become more graphic intensive and movie-like. I also see PowerPoint misused all the time; however, the blame lies with the presenter, not the software.

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