PowerPoint Isn’t the Problem: You Are

PowerPoint-LogoBanned this week: selfie sticks and PowerPoint. That’s right, in the last couple days, news has spread across the globe that Disney Theme Parks are banning those wickedly popular three-foot selfie camera extensions. For safety, of course. And in other banning news? The Copenhagen Business School just banned PowerPoint from faculty lectures. Their philosophy? To reduce stupidity and boredom.

I can latch right onto Disney’s decision. I, for one, don’t want a selfie stick whacking my temples as I scream relentlessly on Thunder Mountain Railroad. Pretty sure that wouldn’t enhance my adrenaline rush. The goal of the ban is sound, resolute, praiseworthy. No more selfie sticks, everybody stays safe on thrill rides.

But I question Copenhagen Business School’s philosophy: ban PowerPoint to make lectures more interesting and students more engaged? Clearly, if a lecture sucks, it must be PowerPoint’s fault.

Oh, sure, author and professor Bent Sorensen (the guy who wrote about his business school’s heroic and forward-thinking approach to ban PowerPoint) has his head in the right place: there are a lot of bad lectures out there. And there are even more bad PowerPoint presentations out there. And yes, something ought to be done about it. But if a lecture or presentation is lousy, let’s be honest: the PowerPoint didn’t kill it; the presenter did.

Sorensen (and to cut the guy some slack, he really is on to something important: improving education through better presentation), in his epistle, used a synonym for PowerPoint six times: “bullet point.” Oh, well yes, if you use PowerPoint to pepper the wall with bullet points, then absolutely, your presentation will be awful. But PowerPoint isn’t the issue. The bullet points are. Which means you are. If you can’t see PowerPoint past a tool that creates bullet points, you’ve got a creativity and critical thinking problem.

The comparison is akin to saying we shouldn’t use Microsoft Word to write an essay. Does MS Word restrict the world’s best writers from creating masterpieces? How could a presentation program be the enemy to the world’s best teachers?

The root of the problem in a presentation that relies on PowerPoint to convey ideas isn’t the software, it’s the planning and delivery. As a doctoral student, we were given the directive (requirement) by a very forward-thinking and credibility-conscious program director to not, under any circumstances, use PowerPoint when giving our dissertation defense. His philosophy was similar to Sorensen’s (and one I never agreed with): in an avant-garde PhD program, we were instructed to be innovative, presentation-savvy communication professionals; PowerPoint didn’t belong there. So what did most of the students do? Use Prezi, of course. And let’s be honest–they were worse off. Just because a program zooms in and out doesn’t make it better–or worse–than PowerPoint. It just makes it different. The approach and creative inclusion of PowerPoint–or any other program–is what matters. But being told PowerPoint was the problem hindered our ability to think about what really matters in a presentation. (*As a tangential anecdote, I opted to actually use PowerPoint and not tell anybody; our director praised the presentation and asked what program I used–he was dumbfounded when I said I used PowerPoint; then he congratulated me again.)

The focus of my graduate program to eliminate PowerPoint didn’t prepare anyone to give better presentations. It just encouraged us to create bad presentations using another platform. Persistent grumblings by educators and business professionals that PowerPoint is the root of all evil (just Google “death by PowerPoint”) leads to the same result: people thinking PowerPoint is inherently the problem, not their own bad presentation skills and lack of creativity.

The reality is, if you want to supplement a strong presentation with images, multi-media, and visualizations of complex or interesting concepts, PowerPoint is a fantastic tool. Probably the best out there.

The argument has been made that PowerPoint constricts the presenter, forces them to a script that follows a linear path and doesn’t allow questions, engagement, or “veering” off. No, PowerPoint doesn’t force or restrict–the presenter does. It’s true that scripted presentations can be static, but let’s not blame the software. Static presentations come from static planning, from using PowerPoint as a crutch, from loading it will bullets. But the effective presenter doesn’t use PowerPoint as a script–that’s just bad form. Rather, with a little planning, a good presenter will use PowerPoint to supplement and enhance certain points. It’s meant to provide visualizations, to speak a thousand words, to insert music tracks, to make a presentation multi-dimensional. But if the good presenter needs to divert away from a slide or group of slides, there’s nothing holding her to her PowerPoint.

When we argue about what makes education, classrooms, and lectures better, we need to put the focus where it ought to be: on our ability to adapt, to engage, to make effective use of technology, to practice, to learn the material, to be confident, and so forth. Blaming the software is a cop-out. PowerPoint isn’t the enemy. If your presentations are bad, it isn’t because PowerPoint killed your creativity or your engagement with an audience; it’s because you weren’t creative and engaging to begin with. Work on those principles first and you can do wonders with PowerPoint.