mamamusings: November 19, 2005

elizabeth lane lawley's thoughts on technology, academia, family, and tangential topics

Saturday, 19 November 2005

i'm just sayin'...

If Microsoft had chosen to name its book digitization and search product “Microsoft Print,” it seems likely there would have been widespread accusations of copycat tactics.

But when Google renames their product “Google Book Search,” nary an eyebrow is raised.

(Obligatory fair-and-balanced link: Niall Kennedy posts a Flickr photo of one of the godawful Powerpoint slides from the recent Window Live announcement, and the comments on the photo are both hilarious and damning. It is indeed true that the “culture of the deck” at MSFT is deadly.)

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the culture of "the deck"

There are many things I’ve been delighted and impressed by during the nearly five months I’ve now spent at Microsoft. However, there have also been a few things that i’ve found extraordinarily disheartening. One of the latter has been the organizatational dependence on “the deck” (that is, Powerpoint files) as the standard mechanism for conveying nearly all information.

Tonight I was reading through one of the blogs I’ve recently added to my aggregator, the most-excellent Presentation Zen (by Garr Reynolds), and I came across a post entitled “The sound of one room napping.” It included this wonderful passage, which sums up beautifully what I’ve been trying to say to the people around me at Microsoft:

Attempting to have slides serve both as projected visuals and as stand-alone handouts makes for bad visuals and bad documentation. Yet, this is a typical, acceptable approach. PowerPoint (or Keynote) is a tool for displaying visual information, information that helps you tell your story, make your case, or prove your point. PowerPoint is a terrible tool for making written documents, that’s what word processors are for.

Why don’t conference organizers request that speakers instead send a written document that covers the main points of their presentation with appropriate detail and depth? A Word or PDF document that is written in a concise and readable fashion with a bibliography and links to even more detail, for those who are interested, would be far more effective. When I get back home from the conference, do organizers really think I’m going to “read” pages full of PowerPoint slides? One does not read a printout of someone’s two-month old PowerPoint slides, one guesses, decodes, and attempts to glean meaning from the series of low-resolution titles, bullets, charts, and clipart. At least they do that for a while…until they give up. With a written document, however, there is no reason for shallowness or ambiguity (assuming one writes well).

To be different and effective, use a well-written, detailed document for your handout and well-designed, simple, intelligent graphics for your visuals. Now that would be atypical.

I wish there was some way to make this (and Tufte’s The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint, and Atkinson’s Beyond Bullet Points) required reading for every Microsoft employee.

[Note to self and colleagues: Use your powers for good. Make the above resources required reading in introductory IT classes.]

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Liz sipping melange at Cafe Central in Vienna