The power’s in the point

The Learning Circuit Blog’s current big question is:

PowerPoint – What is Appropriate, When and Why?

I know they’re hoping to spark discussion, but the next logical stop on this route is:

Podcasts: Should They Contain Lectures?

PowerPoint’s been blamed for more malfeasance than the Gang of Four. Some people believe simply launching it makes you stupider, something that can’t happen when expressions travel via MySpace, YouTube, or Blogger. Edward Tufte even produces posters to offset PowerPoint’s noxious effects, at a selfless $10 a pop ($3 more than his essay on the cognitive style of PowerPoint).

Not that Tufte lacks valid arguments in his critique, but it seems disingenuous to indict software for the shortcomings of its users. A person who blithely uses Microsoft’s templates, salting them with the first available clip art, is unlikely to become more creative because he’s armed with digitized video or owns an island in Second Life (which can look like Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong and all the men are good looking).

Guy Kawasaki recently highlighted Slideshare’s World’s Best Presentation Contest. They’re using Flash or something similar, but Guy’s on target, I think, about what makes the winners winners: “big fonts, big graphics, and a ‘storytelling’ orientation.”

Which isn’t a bad recipe for a presentation intended to persuade. In the case of some of the winners, they are media companies working to persuade you of their creativity, and they do that well.

Sometimes, though, your purpose is to recap an event, explain a change, summarize key data, or provide focus around an issue. If you think each of these objectives requires big fonts, you’re missing the point. And the power.

If you want to trigger discussion, whether you’re using PowerPoint or the cast of Cirque du Soleil, consider whether your medium and your methods get in the way of your message. You may find that the software helps you achieve your end. As Jay Cross suggests in replying to a comment, maybe you’ve got data intended mainly to be printed (or viewed on someone’s own computer). You display it in your presentation to provide a visual anchor, then make the connection explicit: “Here’s the logic behind the backup system; you can read it for yourself and see more in the notes.”

I’ve often been glad, even grateful, when someone included enough information that I could return to the [ presentation / handout / page ] a month later and still make sense of it.

PowerPoint’s a tool. Well, okay, for some people, it’s a crutch, and for others, it’s a busy box. Some people are hobbyists; they just like playing with tools. On the job, though, most of us apply tools to produce results. Paying attention to your work and understanding the tool can improve the quality of the result.

Can, not will, because the quality also depends on the ideas you want to express. You don’t have to spend much time online to find evidence that, as Howard Newton said, the thoughtless are rarely wordless.

So the answer to the Big Question about PowerPoint might be a few more questions:

  • What result are you looking for?
  • What tells you PowerPoint will help achieve it?
  • What tells you PowerPoint’s a better choice than another tool you could apply in the same timeframe?
  • Would someone who doesn’t report to you agree with those three answers?

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