How Practical Are Edward Tufte’s Ideas on PowerPoint?

To hear Edward Tufte tell it, PowerPoint is a killer app that actually kills.


He points to a poorly done PowerPoint presentation as a cause for the space shuttle Columbia disaster.  An author and former Yale professor, Tufte argues that the imprecise nature of PowerPoint glossed over the true cause of the disaster.  The presenters who analyzed the foam debris that caused the disaster, Tufte claims, were too imprecise by virtue of the use of PowerPoint.

If you’d like to hear Tufte rail against PowerPoint on NPR click here.

I’m no lover of PowerPoint.

But Tufte’s claims probably apply best to presentations of highly technical information in visual form. Looking at his website, you’ll see that the visuals he loves are often highly complicated themselves, though perhaps they’re accurate.

One has to wonder whether the average business person can really use his ideas. Or whether we’re just supposed to send in our money and buy his beautiful graphs and illustrations, frame them, and put them on our walls.

My Beef with PowerPoint

My complaint about PowerPoint is different than Tufte’s complaint.  PowerPoint is a perfectly fine program. It’s just used improperly.  Most people use it as a presentation creation tool when it’s actually a tool to illustrate presentations.

To create a presentation, you should first decide what are your two or three core messages. Then you should fill out what you’re going to say to illustrate those messages. Then you should decide how you’re going to illustrate those points.

Instead, people create their presentations by opening up PowerPoint and relying on the templates that the program provides. As a result, most PowerPoint presentations are painful outlines with lots of bullet points.

So, if you’re watching a bad presentation, you don’t blame PowerPoint. Blame the presenter.

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