PowerPoint Makes Us Stupid

How PowerPoint has killed the art of rhetoric

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Hello, everyone. My presentation today is about the harm that PowerPoint presentations are doing to the way we think and speak. To illustrate the danger, this warning is in the form of a PowerPoint presentation.

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For nearly two millennia, from Isocrates and Cicero to the 19th century, the art of rhetoric was at the center of the Western tradition of liberal education. The liberally educated citizen was taught to reason logically and to express thoughts in a way calculated to inform and, when necessary, to motivate an audience.

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Robert Gaskins and Dennis Austin, who developed a program originally called Presenter for the software company Forethought, Inc., did not realize, when Microsoft purchased the rights to PowerPoint in 1987, that they were inadvertently bringing about the collapse of Western civilization.

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In the last three decades, the art of oratory has all but collapsed. The traditional speech is extinct, except for ritual speeches like commencement addresses and presidential State of the Union addresses. At some point these, too, will probably become PowerPoint presentations.

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It is said that “God created men, and Colt made men equal.” Like the Colt revolver, the PowerPoint presentation is an equalizing and democratizing technology. It has eliminated the advantage enjoyed in earlier ages by speakers who organized their material well and mastered the arts of acquiring and maintaining the attention of an audience. Today you can flourish in the corporate, academic, government, and nonprofit worlds, even if you are illogical and inarticulate — as long as you can slap together a boring slideshow.

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This is a slide of a cute kitten, of the kind often included in otherwise dull PowerPoint presentations.

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The first casualty of the PowerPoint presentation has been the first priority of the classical oration — the organization of the speech. In classical rhetoric, a speech could be organized on the basis of a logical progression. Or it could use imagery and incident to arrest the listener’s attention at the beginning and proceed on the basis of topics rather than logical argument or chronology. No thought need be given to the organization of a PowerPoint slideshow, however. You just throw together a bunch of slides.

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PowerPoint presentations relieve the orator of the need to labor over a specific speech for a specific audience. Once you have your personal set of PowerPoint slides, you can just recombine them arbitrarily for any presentation, whatever its ostensible topic. Nobody will criticize you for showing your standard slideshow, because the other presenters will do so as well. There is honor among bores.

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This is a cartoon, of the kind frequently thrown in among otherwise dull PowerPoint slides.

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Among its other pernicious effects is the tendency of PowerPoint to reinforce the assumption that listening to people talk is boring, compared to watching something — anything — on a screen. If you go to an art museum in which there is a TV screen, you will notice that many if not most of the visitors are clustered around the screen, ignoring the art on the walls. Several generations of human beings now suffer from phototropism, also known as vidiocy — the irresistible compulsion to pay attention to lighted screens. Technology is turning us into a race of moths or June bugs.

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Another harmful side effect of PowerPoint is its inadvertent encouragement of multitasking, which is a modern, fancy way of saying “not paying attention.” The reason is the PowerPoint Gap. All too many presenters simply put their speeches up on a PowerPoint slide. The PowerPoint Gap is the difference between the time it takes the member of the audience to read the words on the slide and the time it takes the presenter to read them. Because a slow, droning delivery is part of the culture of PowerPoint, in most cases you can read everything on the slide and return to your iphone or PC, with plenty of time to check your email or the weather or the stock market, before the droning speaker finally says:

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The timing of PowerPoint presentations is another source of recurrent calamity. The typical academic, public official or nonprofiteer, in my experience, if given five minutes for a presentation will include at least 50 slides in the PowerPoint set. This translates into ten slides per minute, or one slide every six seconds. If the slides contain merely the text of the presenter’s talk, as they usually do, and if the presenter drones on slowly according to the received custom, after five minutes the panel moderator will flag the presenter after only a handful of slides. At which point the presenter will whine, “But I have 47 slides to go!”

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This is a graph of fluctuating natural gas prices. It has nothing to do with my presentation, but I thought I needed a graph or two.

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  1. Sometimes the text of the speech on the Power Point Slides is numbered.
  2. Like this.
  3. The numbers don’t mean anything.
  4. But it looks academic and serious, somehow.
  5. Having a lot of points, I mean.

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This is another unrelated graph, this one having to do with spikes in long distance phone call usage during holidays. I was worried that I had too much text and not enough visuals.

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Have I mentioned laser pointers? You can use a laser pointer to point to your words on the PowerPoint slide as you slowly read them. Your reader can read along with you, although you may be too slow for readers who already scanned the whole page and are now checking their emails.

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This is a photo of my second-grade teacher in the 1960s. She taught us basic math by using an overhead projector. She could have been just as effective using chalk on the chalkboard. But chalkboards were no longer high-tech in the age of moon shots and helmet hair.

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This is a diagram of an overhead projector, the PowerPoint technology of the 1950s.

What, I’m out of time? But I have 30 more slides! •

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.
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