I'm at an MSR talk by David Farkas from UW entitled "Need: How PowerPoint Adversely Mediates Thought and Possible Remedies." Since anyone who's been reading my blog for a while knows how much I dislike most uses of PowerPoint, I'm particularly keen to hear why Farkas thinks Tufte is wrong, and also what he suggests as remediation.
He cites a Microsoft estimate of 30 million powerpoint presentations being given per day. Ouch. I wonder if that's a verifiable statistic.
(In an aside, Farkas notes that PPT is more constraining than Word, since Word provides more of a blank canvas. Farkas says that Tufte believes Word has no cognitive style, while Farkas says that's obviously not true--our tools inevitably shape our message. I'd have to agree with that.)
Where Tufte claims that PPT encourages deep hierarchies (many levels of nested bullets), Farkas argues that the reverse is actually true--there's an upward vector on content, resulting in a flattening of hierarchies.
Farkas asks us to take a step back and look at the larger picture of presentation contexts--audiences, presentation genres (product rollout vs technical briefing vs slide show). Tufte focuses on technical genres of presentations, whereas many PPT presentations are focused on "light" genres.
He says you can't assess a PPT deck outside of the context of the presenter's performance/style. The amount of time spent on each slide, whether or not there's a handout provided, and other factors can influence the effectiveness of the deck. The audience has to be considered, as well...their information needs, their cognitive styles, all impact the effectiveness of the presentation.
He describes PPT as inherently "topo-centric"--the presentation of each slide is static and fixed, rather than scrolling. This is good because it provides persistent context during the presenter's discussio of the slide, but bad because it flattens hierarchies.
Print (and HTML), Farkas argues, have a "downward vector and a nesting problem." Print hierarchies naturally run deeper. (Missed the rest of this because I was briefly distracted...)
"The PowerPoint distortion hypothesis" - It is highly plausible that PPT causes deck authors to distort the visual representation of their logical hierarchies. What, then, are the implications for audiences and presenters?
He uses an example deck to show some of the distortions that can occur, but I'm unable to see anything but the ugliness of this deck. White and yellow Times text, in seemingly random sizes, on a bright purple background. Why does discussion of content always seem to ignore the impact of aesthetics?
Oneof my MSR colleagues questions the underlying assumption that all content is hierarchical. Farkas argues that this is necessarily true, that it's a function of how we think. I'm not convinced--many of the best powerpoint-supported presentations I've seen used no bullet points, and no explicit hierarchies.
When I raise my concerns, he responds by saying he wants to limit his discussion to the genre of presentations that need to present hierarchical content--main ideas, sub ideas, supporting material, etc. I'm still not convinced. One of my frustrations with PowerPoint is that it does in fact push that idea on us--that presentations are and should be made up of hierarchical point/subpoint content. In fact, the people doing the best work with PPT tend to go "beyond bullet points," and use it as a narrative medium. But that doesn't prevent them from presenting very detailed and even technical information--it's just that they're presenting it in a way that doesn't fit into this hierachical structure. (For example...Dick Hardt's identity presentation, or Lawrence Lessig's inimitable talks.)
Another commenter argues that the slide should be the secondary channel, and the presenter should be the primary channel. I wish more people here thought this way...that's a big part of what I was critiquing when I wrote about the "culture of the deck" here.
He makes a number of suggestions about how to make it possible to show complex hierarchies more easily in Powerpoint...something that, quite honestly, makes me cringe. I do like his suggestion, however, that you provide breadcrumb-like information at the top of each slide to show where it fits in a hierarchy (if you choose to make your hierarchy explicit).
Suggests some good directions for future research. How do audiences process information in presentations? Can we better udnerstand deck authoring processes? And the last, which I find last compelling, "develop a meaningful taxonomy /vocabulary of deck content and glossing behavior." I'm not sure we need special language to describe ideas/content in decks as opposed to other text or graphical materials.
An audience member I don't know points out the extent to which the slides were forcing him as a presenter to stick to a script, and not engage the audience. He notes that Farkas engaged the audience in his presentation exactly 3 times, and never more than for ten seconds at a time.) Is this an effect of the hierarchical structuring of the content?
Another questioner asks about ways that we can support more creative presentation styles and more creative presenters. The research question here is "are there ways to identify, incorporate and disseminate best practices in presentation methods?"
There's some discussion about the prevalence (seen as both inevitable and necessary) of PPT decks as standalone documents as opposed to presentation aids. Also some discussion about the ways that the "Notes" section can be used in that context.
(It's amazing to be in a room full of not just smart researchers, but also the people who actually build these tools...several PowerPoint team members are here, responding directly on the intended use of specific features. I will so miss this about MSR talks.)
Farkas slams Atkinson's "Beyond Bullet Points," describing it as destructive rather than helpful. It's a terrible direction, he says, to throw out bullet points entirely. It's throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
There's some discussion then about Atkinson's argument, which Farkas says is based on Richard Mayer's work, but is a distortion of it. (Just looked at Mayer's web site, and his work looks fascinating. Note to self: bookmark that for summer reading.) Is it a problem if you've got material on the screen that's unrelated to what you're talking about?
All in all, I'm left with more questions than answers (which isn't necessarily a bad thing), and a sense that there needs to be a great deal more research into the underlying assumptions on presentation methods and materials.
Bonus links to PPTs I've seen and loved:
- Lessig's talk at RIT (RealMedia format)-- and no, this is not a canned presentation. He changes it each time he gives it. Variations in examples, in the underlying narrative, etc.
- Dick Hardt's identity talk from OSCON; very Lessig-like in its style
- Peter Morville's "Why IA Matters" slides (PDF format); more traditional in presentation, but aesthetically pleasing and not constrained by PPT cognitive effects
- Al Gore's talk on global warming--great use of graphics to illustrate concepts in a "sticky" way
- Steve Jobs' presentation at WWDC '05 (compare this to one of Ballmer's recent presentations...)