Tag Archives: evil

“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.

Why we do what we do

Candles lit in memory of those who died in the Sandy Hook murders

The horrific murders in Sandy Hook, Connecticut are on my mind.

On a theological level, I’m deeply annoyed by people who try to comfort the families of victims by saying that it was God’s will.  I think that that’s both offensive to suffering mourners and untrue.  We don’t have satisfying answers to the general question of why suffering, death, and evil exist in this world, and we certainly don’t have satisfying answers about this particular incident.

This is how I summarize my take on this, as a religious person:

  1. There’s a lot that we don’t know.  Perhaps we’ll never know.  However, we can keep striving for understanding.
  2. God gave human beings free will.  We all abuse that free will at times. What happened in Sandy Hook looks a lot like an egregious abuse of free will.
  3. We can choose to turn away from wrongdoing and act as God’s partners in the project of tikkun olam.  That’s a Jewish concept:  the healing or restoration of the world.

I’ve been thinking about tikkun olam, and doing my best to participate in it, for years now.  I feel so fortunate, because I work in a sector where my colleagues strive to make the world a better place every day of their professional lives.

When I think of what happened in Connecticut on December 14th, I think of friends and colleagues who work with at-risk youth, of violence prevention specialists, of civic dialogue facilitators, of mental health care professionals, of advocates of access to health care, of teachers of young children, and of alternative dispute resolution practitioners. They are engaged in a long, difficult, complicated, sometimes discouraging, often under-resourced effort. They seek to prevent harm wherever possible, to mitigate harm when it can’t be prevented, and to create a world where there is positive good.

Most of my work, if it brings any good or prevents any evil, consists of indirect service.  By serving these people, I’m supporting initiatives that I hope will make a difference.  Some of the organizations that I’ve been proud to serve are International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the Public Conversations Project, Family Service of Greater Boston, and Health Care for All.  Their missions make it so very fulfilling to spend my professional life this way.

More than ever, I worry about my friends and colleagues that work with such dedication for all sorts of mission-based organizations.  It’s not just that I worry about the safety of those who are on the front lines, such as violence prevention specialists.  It’s that I worry about professional burn-out in a world where there will have to be a significant change in the culture in order to achieve their goals.  And at the moment, I worry a great deal about whether all that heartfelt effort expended on behalf of mission-based organizations is really adding up to progress toward their goals.

In the nonprofit sector, we do what we do because we believe that real progress and real good are possible.  I do what I can because of a belief that I have something to contribute and because I find it satisfying to think in terms of engaging in tikkun olam.

In search of some wise and realistic words to sum up my motivation for sticking with the work, I turn first to Pirkei Avot:

And then to Martin Luther King, jr:

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