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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Reader Comments:

Thu, Nov 8, 2007 Baffo Italy

That certification is called a graphic/information design degree, and I sure wouldn't want one from Microsoft (based on what their graphics look like, from this Italian vintage point).

Thu, Jun 24, 2004 Sylvia Syracuse, NY

PowerPoint works great if you spend the time to learn it properly and get past the lame templetes. The problem is that most people just use the easy-built in stuff.

Mon, May 3, 2004 Anna St. Louis, MO, US

I have seen some excellent use of PowerPoint in the Red Cross disaster preparedness classes

Fri, Apr 23, 2004 Anonymous Anonymous

In my experience, Powerpoint gets its bad reputation because of the absolute waste of magnetic media some groups produce. I'm currently a student pursuing a BS in Computer Engineering and I've my circuit theory professors have produced informative, consise presentations with accompanying handouts that have helped immensely in class. I've also had a programming class that used the 160 slide presentations accompanying the text book. They relay very little information (some only having the title of the presentation on it) and are generally useless. If groups quit producing itelligence-insulting presentations I feel PowerPoint might get its fair shot. Certify them if you must though I have a feeling it will be about as successful as a interior decorating masters program -- useful in some respect but not really practical.

Fri, Apr 23, 2004 Marcia Indiana

I use powerpoint all the time. Sometimes with upper management, that is the only way to get your point across to them. Besids, PP can't be all that bad, my 6th graders Tech class teaches it and he can use it almost better than I can. It's not evil or bad, and it will not make you stupid. Anyone who has really played with the program knows that you can make very visually appealing presentations, that you can print, just by changing things from the layout of the slide to the background and more.

Fri, Apr 23, 2004 Wegs Midwest

I bet there was and is a Melvin and or Melvina in almost every classroom. I was one and now work with quite a few. There is great job satisfaction and the paycheck is better than most jobs in the area. We view Powerpoint as a neat, quick and easy way to present information to groups via intranet, internet, e-mail, and in a physical environment.It is a mediocre graphical program that does not cultivate awe and wonder. Consequently, or fortunately, it does not take away from the nitty gritty. Bottom line: Powerpoint is used for the dissemination of information and not for impressive presentation.

Fri, Apr 23, 2004 Howard Forder Toronto Canada

Excellent points made in this article and misuse is the number one reason PP gets such a bad rap. Microsoft develops an excellent product that leaves the imagination (or lack of) of the presenter to make it shine. All the flashy additions should be used prudently but they are there for our use if we need them. Certainly a skills course on presentation design is in order... but lacking in the industry. True, the majority of presentations really are bad... but why are we blasting Microsoft for the presenter's lack of skill?

Fri, Apr 23, 2004 Tharg Antarctica

WTF is Melvin?

Thu, Apr 22, 2004 ELang Anonymous

Mrobinson, you missed the point. We know all about the existing MOS certifications. The writer was alluding to an actual presentation to be created in PowerPoint and graded.

Thu, Apr 22, 2004 mrobinson52 Florida

There already is a certification for PowerPoint. It is one of the MOS (formerly MOUS) certifications, and is a requirement to be a MOS Master.
The problem with most PP presentations is that the presenter goes hog wild with the flashy effects and ends up actually losing the audience. MS seems to be able to do a nice job when using them in Product launches though.

Wed, Mar 31, 2004 Laura Grand Rapids

Tufte assumes that people will fail to make leaps of intelligence or intuition, and that they will simply believe what is presented without question. Far from diluting discourse and reasoning, a good interactive presentation can enhance a thoughtful dialog between presenter and audience. However, PowerPoint IS used poorly by most biz presenters. Design and writing are only a small component crafting and delivering a compelling presentation: rather, the ability to connect with your audience, regardless of the tools you use, still reigns supreme. Blaming poor presentation skills on PowerPoint is like blaming a poorly written book on the pen and paper. But why look for blame? Like Em suggests, why not work on improving the art and science of giving and receiving an outstanding presentation? Design certification by Microsoft is superficial drivel: I've attended excellent presentations with hideous designs, and I've seen awful presenters that spent a fortune on designers. Rather, I suggest training titled: "How to be a First Rate Presenter" as well as "Challenge and Question Fearlessly: Your Sacred Duty as an Audience Member."

Tue, Mar 30, 2004 Mike Ohio

This article glosses over the point of Tufte's essay about how squeezing complex ideas into lightweight bullet points dilutes discourse and reasoning. There are serious questions there and not just for "those who don’t use it." There are issues here than run deeper than something that can be fixed with a certification from Microsoft. Too bad this article didn't try to navigate into those deeper waters.

Mon, Mar 29, 2004 Dave New Orleans

I have to agree with you that the problem with PowerPoint is its rampent misuse. I've had to deal with designers that insist on using HTML and Flash for something that could have been done in PowerPoint in a quarter the time. There reasoning, PowerPoint is "evil". Just plain lame...

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