"The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of PPT" plus a Brief History


I. PPT - Criticism

    In an excellent article "PowerPoint Presentations: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" Steven H. Kaninski, an attorney in Washington DC, states:


“I would go so far as to say that almost all business presentations given with PowerPoint, with a little extra work, would be better—even much better—without it.”


    I would add, "and almost all teaching." As I use the case study method, based on asking questions, I rarely lecture.  When I do, I seldom use PPT (a maximum of one 15 minute presentation per semester course) -- and flipcharts, never. My style is to tell stories, and every now and again use a little poetry. Students are ambivalent about flipcharts, but they sure do love PPT, my discouragement notwithstanding.

     In his article Steven Kaninski notes four powerful examples of aversion to PPT, given below. However he does not by any means demonize PPT. It is a powerful tool when used appropriately. Obviously Bridges concurs, or we would not feature one on our homepage. His article gives guidelines on the key word: "appropriately. Bear in mind that a strength, when excessive, may well become a weakness.


1. Perhaps the first CEO to take dramatic action against PowerPoint was Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems. He prohibited it in 1997. 


2. Ford Motor Company followed suit. An exception is made for the use of black and white charts only.


3. The Wall St. Journal reported on April 26th, 2000 that Hugh Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had also had enough of "wannabe Hollywood" PPT presentations. He ordered that presentations be made simpler, without excessive graphics and special effects. His reaction to "PPT carpet bombing" was not alone.1 The footnote elaborates on other similar reactions among the military.


4. In the Columbia Shuttle disaster of Feb. 1st, 2003 all seven crew members were killed. One of the findings of the  Columbia Shuttle Accident Investigation board was that a contributory factor had been the habitual use of PPT at NASA. PPT had not contributed to a better information flow, but the reverse -- it had actually prevented it!


    The Yale professor of statistics and graphic design, Edward Tufte, is another source for major criticism of PowerPoint. He points out that PPT is more of a crutch for the presenter than a help to enlighten the audience. It leads to simplistic thinking, a linear progression through an unnecessarily deep hierarchy, with concepts squashed into bullet point lists.


What to do instead?

    In Munich Christopher and Denise Magyar have a firm, English Communication Tools- Business English and Presentation. They are professional English trainers and master public speakers in both English and German. Both have served as district governors of Toastmasters, a public speaking organization founded in 1924, in 2011 with 12,500 clubs and 250,000 members in 108 countries.


    II. A Brief History of PPT2

    Rob Campbell and Taylor Pohlman founded Forethought, Inc. in 1983 in order to develop object oriented bit-mapped application software. Bob Gaskins, a Berkelely Ph.D., joined he company in return for a large equity stake. He and Dennis Austin, a software developer, worked on "Presenter."  Eventually they renamed it PowerPoint before its release in 1987 for the Apple Macintosh.

    The first year PowerPoint generated graphics pages for overhead transparencies in black and white. The second year it was already offered in color. Equally fast was the arrival of Microsoft, which bought Forethought Inc. and the Powerpoint product for $14 million. Microscoft incorporated Power Point into Microsoft Office in 1990. That rapidly led to its becoming the most widely used presentation software in the world. 
    Major improvements were introduced in 2002. These included comparing and merging changes in presentations, defining animation paths for individual shapes, pyramid/radial/target and Venn diagrams, multiple slide masters, a "task pane" to view and select text and objects on the clipboard, password protection, "photo album" generation, and the use of "smart tags" enabling faster formatting of text copied into the presentation.

    Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2012 has been reported as scheuduled to go to manufacturing July 2nd, 2012. Presumably it will enhance support for graphics and multimedia. There are some glitches associated with PowerPoint, both technical and "presentational." The major technical glitch is a lack of compatability. PowerPoint on Mac Os comes cannot open its own files orginating in Windows. This glitch happens when content from other applications has been embedded into the presentation through OLE.

    The presentation glitches are more prevalent. Historically content and the art work to support it were often seperated. Large corporations had an internal graphics department. Smaller ones went to graphics designers. Now the presenter tends to wear both the "content" hat and the "artistic" hat. If he is "PPT literate" with an artistic bent, he spends a lot of time optimizing PPT for great effects. If he is not all that current with the program or not particularly artistically inclined, he spends a lot of time wrestling with PPT.  The end result is the same: a lot of time spent with PPT.

    PowerPoint has become generally easier to produce presentations with (even to the point of having an "AutoContent Wizard" suggesting a structure for a presentation. (It initially started as a joke by the Microsoft engineers but later included as a serious feature in the 1990s.)

    Increased simplicity notwithstanding, on over-reliance on PPT leads to two shortcomings. The first is in creating the actual content. The second is in not preparing and practicing the actual presentation enough.



1 Thomas Edwin Ricks is a journalist who specializes in the military.  He wrote Fiasco, The American Military Adventure in Iraq, Penguin Press, 2006. Two quotes about power point (pp. 75 f.) are:

    a) Lt. Gen. Mckierman: a) "It's quite frustrating the way this works, but the way we do things nowadays is combatant commanders brief their products in PowerPoint up in Washington to OSD and Secretary of Defense... In lieu of an order, or a frag [fragmentary] order, or plan, you get a set of PowerPoint slides...frustrating, because nobody wants to plan against PowerPoint slides."

    b) Retired Army Col. Andrew Bacevich: "Here (i.e. PPT) may be the clearest manifestation of OSD's [Office of Secretary of Defense] contempt for the accumulated wisdom of the military profession and of the assumption among forward thinkers that technology -- above all information technology -- has rendered obsolete the conventions traditionally governing the preparation and conduct of war. To imagine that PowerPoint slides can substitute for such means is really the height of recklessness."