“Power corrupts. PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.” (Redux)

A slide from the PowerPoint version of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address

This is another article, salvaged with help from the Wayback Machine, from my now-defunct first blog. I think that the points I made then are as valid in 2013 as they were in 2005.  What do you think?

Mon 14 Feb 2005 06:41 AM EST

Most days of the week, I tend to think of information technology as morally neutral.  It isn’t inherently good or evil; the applications of a technology are good or evil.

But I do find some forms of information technology irritating or counter-productive – especially as they are often used in the nonprofit/philanthropic sector.

PowerPoint happens to be in that category.

I came to conclusion through my favorite research method.  (I.e., staring off into space for about half an hour.)  During this strenuous research, I asked myself two questions:

  1. When have I enjoyed giving a presentation based on PowerPoint?
  2. When have I enjoyed or learned a lot from someone else’s PowerPoint presentation?

Although I try to avoid giving PowerPoint presentations these days, I had no trouble answering Question #1 on the basis of previous experience.  I almost always liked it.  It’s great to have my talking points, my graphic displays, and my annotations packaged in one document.  Assuming that there’s no equipment failure on the part of the projector, the screen, the computer, or the storage medium that holds the PowerPoint document – it’s very convenient – although it’s not very safe to assume that none of these factors will fail.

In short, PowerPoint is designed to make presenters reasonably happy.  (Except in cases of equipment failure.)

The answer to Question #2 is a little more difficult.  I can be an exacting judge of how information is presented, and of whether the presenter is sensitive to the convenience and learning styles of the audience.

Perhaps the presenter put too many points on each slide, or too few.  Perhaps I was bored, looking at round after round of bulleted text, when graphic displays would have told the story more effectively.  Perhaps I wondered why the presenter expected me to copy the main points down in my notebook, when he/she knew all along what they were going to be.  Perhaps the repeated words, “next slide, please,” spoken by the presenter to his/her assistant seemed to take on more weight through sheer repetition than the content under consideration.  Perhaps there were too many slides for the time allotted, or they were not arranged in a sequence that made it easy to re-visit specific points during the question and answer period.

In short, PowerPoint as a medium of presentation does not tend to win friends and influence people.  (Of course, the best designed PowerPoint presentations succeed spectacularly, but the likelihood of creating or viewing one is fairly low.)

However, all is not lost.  If you have struggled to attain some high-level PowerPoint skills, and your role in a nonprofit/philanthropic organization calls for you to make frequent presentations, I can offer you advice in the form of the following three-point plan:

  1. Knock yourself out.  Create the PowerPoint presentation of your dreams.  Include all the bells and whistles.  Be sure to write up full annotations for each slide.
  2. Print out this incredible PowerPoint presentation in “handout” format, and give a paper copy to each person at the beginning of your talk.  As a bonus, you can also tell your audience where they can view or download it on the web.
  3. Cull out all but five or six slides for each hour of your planned presentation.  These should only include graphics that must be seen to be believed, and text that is more effective when read silently than when spoken.  This severely pared-down version will be the PowerPoint document that you will actually use during your presentation.

I realize that this will probably not be welcome advice, but the interests of your organization will undoubtedly dictate that you deploy a PowerPoint strategy that will, at the very least, not alienate the audiences at your presentations.

If you have any lingering hopes that PowerPoint is the best tool for engaging stakeholders in your mission, my final advice to you to review the PowerPoint version of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.


A note on the title of this article:

I wish I had invented this aphorism, but I didn’t.

In 1887, John Dalberg-Acton (1st Baron Acton) wrote, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

In 2003, Edward Tufte wrote “Power corrupts.  PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.

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5 thoughts on ““Power corrupts. PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.” (Redux)

  1. Marci H 03/06/2013 at 11:56 pm Reply

    I love it! I used to use that article in a PowerPoint class I taught back then and everything still applies. With all of these online presentation tools, everyone feels they can create a sexy-looking presentation…but sexy doesn’t equal effective!

  2. K. 03/10/2013 at 2:35 pm Reply

    I appreciate your comments on this. The best use of PowerPoint I’ve seen recently has been for Ignite and TED talks, where the focus is on visual images with a minimum of text.

  3. Grace Lazzara 03/12/2013 at 8:51 am Reply

    You’re probably already aware of Prezi . . . we’ve been using it at our company, and it’s much more appealing than PPT. Just the motion between one image and the next adds a layer of interest. We also find that folks (in general!) use less copy. A learning curve, of course, but well worth it. (I do not work for Prezi!)

  4. William 08/03/2013 at 7:07 am Reply

    So, you’re point is everybody’s use of PowerPoint is…pointless. Everybody, that is, except for you and your example from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address represents the ideal and only way to use PwrPoint?

    I’d like to point out that its common knowledge across age groups and industries that reading off your powerpoint or including your presentation text on a slide is the worst. I’d like to suggest that unless someone is doing this in a presentation, PowerPoint is a very effective medium to communicate your message. Like everything, there’s a right way and a wrong way to use it.

    FYI: Your wonderful 6 slide example above is far from effective. Honestly, I don’t think it’s any better than somebody who had complete text on 50 slides. But thanks for the examples of how not to use PowerPoint.

  5. Deborah Elizabeth Finn 08/03/2013 at 7:42 am Reply

    @William: Oh, my! I had hoped it was clear that the six-slide version of Lincoln’s Gettysberg Address was an example of how badly PowerPoint can be used.

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