PowerPoint: Powerful or Pointless?

As a university student, I am in contact with PowerPoint on the reg. I mean, basically anyone living in the 21st century has had some experience with PowerPoint, whether it’s been good, bad or absolutely horrifying. PowerPoint has wriggled its way into our lives and there’s certainly no turning back now. But, what’s the deal with our obsession over this tool? Seriously, what’s all the fuss about?

Don’t get me wrong, PowerPoint can be a fantastic tool for learning, public speaking, and teaching but some studies are suggesting that it actually hinders learning.

I know what you’re thinking… It’s preposterous! Absurd! Ridiculous! But before you go closing this article –  hear me out. Here are four reasons why PowerPoint might not be all it’s cracked up to be…

1. Confusion

PowerPoint is most commonly used to help break down complex ideas, especially when used as a teaching aid. Now, this can go one of two ways: really well or, you guessed it, really bad. When you’re explaining a complicated concept that you’ve broken down into the easiest, bite-sized increments of text, sometimes there can be some confusion. Who knew, right? 

It’s gone as far as the New York Times blaming the 2003 Columbia space Shuttle incident on poor PowerPoint use. Now, that seems a bit extreme but they do raise some good points (heh heh, get it… points). It is believed that NASA relied too heavily on presenting sensitive information via PowerPoint, leading to a huge miscommunication of information. One thing leads to another and bing, bang, BOOM you got yourself a shit storm! Or should I say shrapnel storm?

2. Boredom

We’re all familiar with the standard PowerPoint setup. You’ve got your title, subtitle, an image here or there (if you’re lucky), and some text, usually in bullet point form. Now, I don’t know about you guys, but I’m kind of bored with it. We need some pizazz, some flare to make it just that little bit more stimulating. 

Of course, this doesn’t relate directly to PowerPoint as a programme, but rather to its user. In saying that, it’s pretty easy to fall into the trap that is the PowerPoint ‘theme’. Sorry to burst your bubble, but they don’t make your PowerPoint unique: there’s only 26 to choose from!

A PowerPoint sort of ‘locks in’ a schedule that allows author input only. I know you’ve all heard the words, we’ll get to that in the next few slides, like really? By lowering the chance to tailor content to the needs of an audience, distancing them even further, it is difficult to produce a PowerPoint that is both custom and engaging. So, sorry professor, that circuit theme won’t save you after all.

3. Information Overload

The term ‘drowning in information’ is one everyone can relate to, and unfortunately we’ve all experienced it, thanks to PowerPoint. You download the file, open it up, and you see those dreaded words, slide 1 of 87. The problem with PowerPoint is that although it breaks down ideas into smaller more digestible pieces, it takes more of said pieces to explain the bigger picture.

This stretching of information can make it difficult for the audience to make connections between topics, evaluate relationships, and identify anomalies; which, by the way, makes a PowerPoint incredibly disengaging. Statistician and Professor, Edward Tufte totally agrees with this idea. As a pioneer for data visualisation and famous for his work on information design; I’m certainly not going to argue with him. I mean, he does make a pretty good point…

With so little information per slide, many, many slides are needed. Audiences consequently endure a relentless sequentiality, one damn slide after another.”

4. Critical Thinking

Ahh, the dreaded bullet point. Look, I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t think I’ve ever given them that much thought. It’s strange to think that this small, stylistic choice can be so influential in our ability to grasp concepts and theories. By presenting complex information with countless gaps, it can actually oversimplify the content. Weird, right?

By providing the audience with what seems to be well-rounded and wholesome information, analysis is actually discouraged and so is the understanding of concepts. This is especially true when information and concepts are spread across slide, after slide, after slide. I wouldn’t go as far as saying bullet points make us stupid, but maybe I’m just too stupid to realise it?

Some pros, I guess…

I should probably point out some positives because yes I’ll admit, it’s not all bad. PowerPoint is a universally used and compatible programme that it is, sort of, an expectation to own and use. It’s cheap or in my case, it’s free (thx QUT luv u), it can help with organisation, flow, and can sometimes help with fear that may come with public speaking. However, the main positive is how it can address multiple learning styles. By providing both verbal and visual learning, it is easier to accommodate a wider range of individuals. I personally learn from reading and re-writing, whereas some of my peers learn via listening, and PowerPoint can help with that.

Now, I’m not saying PowerPoint is the devil, but I certainly think it needs to be kicked off its pedestal quick-smart. PowerPoint has its pros and its cons like everything does. Maybe we need to use it more thoughtfully? Maybe it doesn’t fit the task we’ve assigned for it? Maybe it really is just a god-awful tool that we need to ostracise this very second? 

I know, in reality, no one is going to boycott PowerPoint, it’s just too damn handy – even I’m aware of that. But I’d like to spark something, anything. Maybe the next time you’re presenting an idea, ditch the PowerPoint altogether! Sing a song, do a dance, write a rap instead; just please save your peers (and me) from the seventh circle of hell, which is probably just Satan with a PowerPoint presentation.

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