The recent polemic against PowerPoint by Edward Tufte (there’s a nice précis over at Wired) has been echoing around the ideasphere, with coverage in the Times and in many blogs and mailing lists. I’m a frequent public speaker and care a lot about this; herewith some thoughts and advice, along with a bit of routine Microsoft-bashing.

Microsoft First · The PowerPoint product manager quoted in the Times clearly Just Doesn’t Get It. He notes correctly that Tufte is a fan of high information density, but then asserts (no evidence, just The Way It Is) that if people thought a presentation was going to have high information density, “they wouldn’t want it.” Huh? On what planet? I think most people would be happy with the idea that if they’re going to sit through a presentation, the information will be dense and tell them everything they need to know. Hint: Just because information is dense doesn’t mean it has to be confusing or boring or less than clear. I don’t think the Microsoftie has actually read Tufte.

I Suck · I have been a speechmaker for years, and I’ve used PowerPoint for years, and I’ve had lots of bulleted lists in those PowerPoints. But I’ve decided that Tufte is right, and that bulleted lists generally suck, and I’m really trying not to do that any more.

I had a good excuse to make the break recently when I switched from PowerPoint to Apple’s excellent Keynote. Which is not to say that you can’t produce tedious, irritating, bullet-point-hell slides with Keynote, you can.

Content vs. Auxiliary · If you’re going to escape the tyranny of the bullet point, you have to get away from the idea that what’s in your slides is the content of your presentation. Slides aren’t big enough or rich enough or smart enough to themselves contain any presentation worth listening to for more than about ten minutes. Instead, your slides are a visual auxiliary to your material; no more, no less. They’re terrific for source code, for graphs, for screen shots, for pictures of people.

Of course, one consequence of this is that your slides are going to be less useful for people to take home and send around the office to their colleagues. That’s OK, and the scientific-research community solved this years ago: you write a paper that contains all your prose and numbers and graphs and references and is supposed to stand alone. Then you make a set of slides with your key arguments and visuals and equations to support your presentation at the conference. Which is not to say that presentations at academic conferences can’t be the dreariest sort of extended death-by-bullets, they can.

Just Say No to Bullets · I’ve built seven Keynote presentations since September 10, and they contain maybe two or three bulleted lists in total. So, it can be done, and it’s worth doing. As Bob Foster said on this subject: “The best speakers I have seen use slides like singers use pianos; they don't play the melody.”

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December 15, 2003
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