Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Death to PowerPoint. Long Live PowerPoint

While reading Frank Frommer’s book How PowerPoint Makes You Stupid, New York: The New Press, 2012, I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps the main arguments were available on a PowerPoint slide deck in SlideShare.  You see how corrupted I’ve become.

I’m not a great fan of PowerPoint, and for many of the reasons pointed out by Fromer, and earlier in a critique by Edward Tufte in The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint.  No technology is neutral, and PowerPoint can encourage:
  • The drive for efficiency (via shortcuts) over effectiveness
  • The view that a meeting means a presentation
  • Showmanship and salesmanship over content and problem-solving
  • The reduction of complexity into default and simplistic bullet points
  • Simplified text
  • Lazy and uncritical thinking
  • Decontextualization of data
  • Sloganeering and use of vague, empty language
I’ve witnessed all of these, and been guilty of some myself.

I was enjoying having my feelings about PowerPoint mirrored back to me, but found myself becoming resistant.  While Frommer’s arguments were compelling, I began to feel they were too strident, too one dimensional.  Not every problem in business or anywhere else needs a high degree of reflection, intense critical analysis, and prolonged debate. The challenge posed by PowerPoint lies as much in the lack of media literacy among managers as it does in the software.  When people find something convenient, they tend to overuse and abuse it, but that doesn’t negate all of its value.  Apart from finding the book overzealous in its condemnation, something else was troubling me.  I was feeling that there was a cultural defensiveness roiling beneath the logical arguments.  How else should we take a statement like this:

“A language of universal communication, the English language thus imposes its constraints and a specific mode of linguistic construction. The omission of some connecting words; the modification of word order, notably the inversion of nouns and adjectives; and morphological changes in some words,  notably words with the suffix – isation that have become relatively in  French, all demonstrate that this Anglo-American contamination is nothing new.” (my bold)
Franck Frommer is a French journalist, and having worked a very great deal with the French, I recognized certain cultural tendencies driving his arguments.

I have no wish to stereotype (a fixed perception with no room for individual variation), but in my experience, a French cultural tendency is to respect intellectual debate. Every problem is treated as being unique, and deserving of its own analysis and solution – anything else is superficial.  I once gave two groups – one French and one Japanese – 10 minutes to come up with 5 questions that they would like to ask the other group (to identify differences in their organizational cultures).  The Japanese group finished in 5 minutes; the French were still debating what precise questions to ask 45 minutes later.  I greatly respect the French cultural tendency to go deeply into issues, but I also respect the American drive for action.  Neither approach is appropriate all of the time.  Both can add value at different times under different circumstances.        

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