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Face-off: PowerPoint vs. PowerPoint

PowerPoint: You either love it or you hate it. Our editors debate the virtues and pitfalls of this computer presentation tool.

Face-off Just as a PowerPoint presentation poorly executed can make you want to poke your eyes out, a good one can make you stand up and shout for joy. Our editors take sides on the virtues and the pitfalls of this overused and underappreciated computer tool.

The enemy of clarity

By Paul Gillin, Editor-in-Chief

Let me admit my bias at the outset. I'm a word guy. Words are my profession and my passion. There's nothing I like more than a good idea, phrased simply and delivered clearly.

PowerPoint has become the enemy of clarity. In the right hands, it is an exquisite tool for organizing thoughts. But too often, PowerPoint has become the message. Its multimedia effects, over-engineered slide transitions and unfathomable charts can actually obscure the points the user wants to deliver, while wasting time in both preparation and delivery.

Worse, PowerPoint can actually enforce rigidity that prevents the presenter from being clear, a syndrome I call the PowerPoint handcuffs. But more on that in a moment.

I'll admit to being a recovering PowerPoint addict. I have prepared scores of slide shows over the years and have fallen victim to the software's toys and time-wasters. That's why I'm taking the anti-PowerPoint position today. Fiddling with fonts or choosing clip art is work best done by designers, not graphically challenged business people. Free yourself from PowerPoint's seductive but pointless lures.

PowerPoint offers two great message-delivery tools. The first is bullets. They are a useful way to organize your unstructured thoughts. Use them to get your message in order and as a basis for spare handouts on which users can write notes.

The second tool is informational graphics. Basic bar, line and pie charts deliver numerical information in a way that the human brain can intuitively absorb and understand. Kept simple, they do the job.

But PowerPoint's utility ends about there. Microsoft, in its pursuit of upgrades, has laden PowerPoint with features that nobody needs.

Take 3D graphics. There is no useful purpose to adding dimension to a bar chart. In fact, doing so can actually exaggerate or minimize the impact of the data. A 3D pie chart flipped on its side is actually less readable than a simple 2D pie chart standing straight up.

How about clip art? Is there any useful purpose for this stuff? Clip art is a tool for idle hands to add meaningless decorations that obscure the message. And if you really want to waste time, go on the Web searching for new clip art decorations. Puh-leeze.

Slide transitions are pointless time-wasters. Users can now choose from more than 60 transitional effects to get from one slide to another, including five variations of the "wheel clockwise" transition. Can you imagine a stupider way to spend your time? And let's not even get started on custom text animation.

Multimedia is a great tool in the right hands, but PowerPoint is rarely in the right hands. Most people use this feature to add gratuitous sound effects that are intended to make the audience laugh rather than listen. And, of course, you can spend hours on the Internet looking for new sound effects.

Fonts are a means to deliver your message clearly, not a decorative device. Most people would do fine with about three font choices. So why does PowerPoint require you to slog through more than 100? If anyone can think of a useful purpose for the Vladimir Script font in a business presentation -- or a reason why it's even there -- please drop me a line.

This brings me to the PowerPoint handcuffs. That's the forced sequencing of ideas that PowerPoint imposes on those who are too insecure to deviate from the rules. I recently sat through a presentation by a software CEO that was more about his PowerPoint than his message. Nothing was going to stop this guy from finishing his 47 slides, which he did, without answering questions or engaging in discussion. It was a good chat ruined.

I'm sure that someone in his marketing department was smiling, but out in the field, the CEO had just bombed. PowerPoint can do that to you. People who lack the will or spontaneity to deviate from the presentation can become little more than script-readers reciting the slides. It's all in the name of staying on top of the message. But is the message really well served by limiting its scope to what's on the slides?

The next time you create a PowerPoint presentation, try to follow a few simple rules. Use bullets and keep the verbiage spare and simple. Black type on a white background works fine. I like Times Roman. Keep charts two-dimensional and clear. Don't even click on the ''Slide Show'' menu. And be ready to talk. Because your presentation isn't about PowerPoint. It's about what you want to say.


Beats flip charts

By Margaret Rouse, Editor

Let me confess my bias at the outset too. Before I became a technical writer, I was a trainer. I am one of the people responsible for teaching presenters how to create 3-D graphics, import clip art and add those slide transitions.

You said you liked bullets, Paul? Go ahead, you can shoot me right now. There's a nice sound effect right between "typing" and "glass breaking."

I am well aware that some people get so wrapped up choosing the layout that they forget about content.

When used effectively, however, PowerPoint can strengthen the quality of a good presentation.

When someone is presenting to a large audience, they have one significant disadvantage, no matter who they are or what they're speaking about. They don't know much about their audience.

Sure, they may have a general idea of who's attending their talk simply because of the topic, but the speaker doesn't really know much about the skill levels of individual people in the audience, what they're hoping to get out of the talk, or how they learn.

That's where PowerPoint can be of assistance.

The fact is, each member of an audience has a preferred mode for processing information. A good presenter takes everyone's processing needs into consideration.

While a speech by itself will be enough for some members of the audience, visual learners will be left out. They need graphics to get those brain neurons firing.

That's why presenters have traditionally used flip charts, overhead transparencies and handouts. It's why good textbooks, even at the post-graduate level, have illustrations.

What PowerPoint does is provide the speaker with the ability to incorporate visual clues in a presentation so audience members don't have to work very hard to pick up the information they need. PowerPoint doesn't handcuff a good speaker. It frees him from worrying about the needs of his audience so he can concentrate on delivering his message.

It's only the bad speakers you need to watch out for with PowerPoint. But truth be told, you need to watch out for them anyway. Luckily, PowerPoint allows you to spot them more efficiently. As soon as you see that somebody has jammed their slide with paragraphs of text and then starts to read their slides verbatim, you can head for the exit!

When a PowerPoint slide is used well, it not only helps members of the audience to focus on the speaker's main points, it also helps the speaker to stay on topic during the presentation. A confident speaker won't read from his slides, he'll put them up to focus his audience while he's talking to (and with) them.

By printing out the presentation in note form and using it as a handout, the audience member who would ordinarily be taking copious notes suddenly has the freedom to become an active listener. The audience member sitting next to him who never takes notes during a presentation is provided with a place to jot down questions to ask the speaker.

Because the entire PowerPoint presentation can be easily converted to HTML or video files, the presenter has the ability to post the presentation and extend his audience.

Lastly, if the same PowerPoint presentation is used by several individuals on a team, it can help ensure that all their presentations are delivered consistently, while allowing for each speaker's own style of delivery.

So having said all that, I'd like to politely disagree with Paul's contention that PowerPoint has become the enemy of clarity.

To argue against its use is analogous to banning art supplies just because some people are going to paint sad puppies with big eyes and Elvis on velvet.

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I have to disagree with the first reviewer, but only because there are a lot of uses for PowerPoint. Slide transitions, for example are useful when designing a self-playing presentation.  This is an affordable and user-friendly way to create a video.  I agree that there are very few slide transitions that are appropriate for an enterprise setting, but what if you run a business where your employees skew younger and more casual? A gaming company where an explosion of the content of a slide is a great transition to announce the entry of a new shoot 'em up game? I appreciate that software developers put a few extra features in and am willing to sit through some unskillful presentations if it means people who know what they're doing can get creative.