How PowerPoint Is Like Melvin

Why some things--and people--are just unlikable.

Back when Auntie Em was just a wee sprout in Public School 102, there was a boy named Melvin in the next class. Melvin was the sort of boy that everyone just loved to notice: nerdy, stammering, dressed in oddly colored clothing and with awkward posture. Being children, of course, we picked on him without a second thought. I’ve often wondered what happened to Melvin. These days, I suspect that one of the Microsoft development teams knows just how he felt, because PowerPoint is rapidly becoming the Melvin of Microsoft.

For some reason, PowerPoint has become the application that those who don’t use it love to hate. Leading the charge is information-design maven Edward Tufte, who penned an essay titled, “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint.” He announces that the standard PowerPoint templates “usually weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis.” For a mere $7, you can buy the rest of his critique at https://www.edwardtufte.com.

Tufte is not alone in this loathing for PowerPoint. The New York Times picked up on Tufte’s ideas with an article titled, “PowerPoint Makes You Dumb.” You’ll find others on the Web referring to PowerPoint as “evil,” “soulless” or “considered harmful.”

There are bright spots in the online world of PowerPoint criticism, of course. The classic “Gettysburg PowerPoint Presentation” (www.norvig.com/ Gettysburg/) is one of the funniest things online—and much more subtle than more recent criticism. Then there’s Aaron Swartz’s presentation of the Tufte essay in PowerPoint format (www.aaronsw.com/weblog/000931). But overall, PowerPoint is still definitely in Melvin territory.

Why does PowerPoint, of all the innocuous applications in the world, collect all these naysayers? Contrary to the Times, PowerPoint doesn’t really force you to be dumb. Yes, you can create stultifying presentations, but you can also use Word to create inane brochures—and we’re not treated to a barrage of warnings about Word being the spawn of the devil. Contrariwise, anyone who’s been to a really good seminar has probably seen PowerPoint used effectively to enhance the work of an excellent speaker. There just seems to be something about yellow text and bullet points on a deep blue background that affects pundits in all the wrong ways.

It seems to me that a large part of the problem is simply PowerPoint’s success. Want to fire 500 people? Put the numbers in a PowerPoint presentation and show them to senior management. Time to review the dismal financials from last quarter? There they are on the screen. Just as Pavlov’s dogs salivated when he rang a bell, even though the bell really had nothing to do with the food, so do today’s high-tech workers viscerally associate PowerPoint with bad news delivered via bullet points and stunning colors.

This points to a cure, of course: The PowerPoint team should start a concerted drive to use the tool for good news as well as bad. Announce the company picnic, complete with a paid day off, by giving a slide show in the corporate auditorium. Deliver news of year-end bonuses to the team with a bullet-point list of what they’ve done right. Heck, the product team could even help out here, by including a few new templates tastefully decorated with happy faces and party streamers.

For that matter, what about a PowerPoint design certification? If the problem is not the tool but its misuse (as I firmly believe), perhaps there just aren’t enough people trained to create innovative and eye-catching presentations. Surely Microsoft could put together some compelling training and an exam, and create a small army of PowerPoint MCPs to spread the good word.

Oh, and Melvin? If you’re out there, drop me an e-mail. I figure by now you’re probably CIO of some Fortune 500 company and getting your just revenge by living well.

Are you a happy PowerPoint user? Or are you trying to convince your boss to declare the company a PowerPoint-free zone?

About the Author

Em C. Pea, MCP, is a technology consultant, writer and now budding nanotechnologist who you can expect to turn up somewhere writing about technology once again.

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