Saturday 18 Aug 2018 | 04:54 | SYDNEY
Saturday 18 Aug 2018 | 04:54 | SYDNEY

In defence of PowerPoint


Sam Roggeveen


29 April 2010 10:57

Well, someone's got to stand up for little guys like Bill Gates, so here goes.

The nub of the issue is this now notorious PowerPoint slide, presented last year to head of NATO forces in Afghanistan, GEN Stanley McChrystal, to portray America's strategy in that country. The slide set off a tide of criticism against PowerPoint in Monday's NY Times, and it even makes an appearance in Paul McGeogh's column in today's SMH:

For all the reasons laid out here, this is a really bad slide. But it could have been so much worse, particularly if it were not a slide at all.

To a first-time visitor to Sydney, a map of the central business district would look almost as baffling as this slide, yet such a map is one of the first things the visitor would seek out on arrival. What if, instead of a map, we handed this visitor a narrative essay describing Sydney's street layout? To understand the length and complexity of such a document, try to imagine how you would write directions to your house from the nearest train station for someone who has never visited your country. Clearly it would be far simpler and more effective to draw a map.

For whatever cognitive reason, people seem to process information much better when it's presented visually rather than in pure narrative form. Slides like this one are a (bad) attempt to do this. 

The NY Times piece says the US military is concerned that PowerPoint inhibits critical thinking. But the instinct to present ideas and arguments visually is a sound one; the Pentagon just needs to train its people to do that job better. And that other staple of the PowerPoint presentation, the bullet point list, at least forces the briefer to organise and prioritise their arguments.

You can bet London to a brick that, if the Pentagon ever banned PowerPoint, briefers would just seek out a primitive form of the same tool; in olden days, we called it a 'blackboard'.