"We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint"

A few days ago, the front page of the New York Times directly addressed a subject I love--that is, love to hate on. It's bold headline--the lead story--read "We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint." Finally, someone agrees with me; the article quotes members of the government and military leaders, who take particular issue with the "mind-numbing" effects a 30-or-so-slide PowerPoint can have on an audience. (I guess when they say it, it's front-page news.) Anyone who's been to a conference of any type, or taken a general education class in college knows exactly the effect they're talking about.

I don't mean to dismiss the program entirely, as I think it can make a wonderful visual aid to a lecture; photographs and professional looking animation with quick, easy to glance-at text can seamlessly connect with the speaker. Yesterday I sat through about half a dozen ten-minute class presentations in Central Asian history, and one guy exemplified everything that is good about the program: he used very little text, and what text there was did not repeat anything he said, but rather, represented larger themes. His particular lecture was on the autobiography of a herdsman in Mongolia, and he was able to infuse his talk with humor, pictures, and well-done animation of the text. It did not present itself as cheesy, canned, or the very worst, the verbatim presentation. Everyone else paled in comparison.

Most people pale in comparison. In student presentations, which I sit through a lot, the PowerPoint seems to have replaced the old habit of notecards or outline notes; everything goes into the slides, and so instead of appearing well-informed as a public speaker, you instead look like you're reading something perhaps copied from the internet or prepared by someone else. It breaks up the audience's concentration when they must choose between investing their energy reading the slides or listening to the speaker.

And when teachers use them for lectures, students inevitably take fewer notes--if any--and simply rely on the PowerPoint (posted online) as a study aid. Several years ago I had a clear picture of the results of this method, in a Global Political Economy class I took; rarely did any of my classmates take notes, and when the mid-term grades came back, I was disappointed to see that after all my studying, I'd only made an 86. However, everyone else made Ds and low Cs, and a few of them asked me about it directly. Could I help them study next time around? Well, you know how I study? I take out my handwritten notes and type them on the computer, solidifying my grasp on it all, relating each lecture to the others, and fixing the organization in case the class jumped around. Reading things off the PowerPoint rarely invites students to take note of the concept in a way that makes sense to them, and eliminates any possibility of jotting down ideas or questions that may arise throughout a class or lecture. It is the worst way to study, and, for me at least, the worst way to learn. True understanding in a classroom usually comes from active participation--if not through discussion, then at least through reinterpreting the concepts by putting them into words on paper.

My own bias certainly bleeds through here, but I just hate using the clunky program, and find it unfortunate that I'm expected to WOW my listeners with flashy images and lots of text. When I must use it, they're simple and short, containing mostly photos. I find the program limiting, compared to other programs I've used for much nobler endeavors, like creating a newspaper (or, back in the day, a yearbook) via Adobe InDesign. I find the graphics, functions and options in PowerPoint just completely uninspiring.

Of course, it does prove beneficial when your goal is to bore, as reported in the NYT article:

Senior officers say the program does come in handy when the goal is not imparting information, as in briefings for reporters.

The news media sessions often last 25 minutes, with 5 minutes left at the end for questions from anyone still awake. Those types of PowerPoint presentations, Dr. Hammes said, are known as “hypnotizing chickens.”

See my point? We just shouldn't limit ourselves to reducing things to bullets; it's as disconcerting as the concept of good writing in the form of a text message.