PowerPoint: Blaming The Program, Not The Pro

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MANILA: Here comes Mr Andrew Smith of The Guardian complaining "How PowerPoint is killing critical thought" (23 September 2015, theguardian.com). If the above image is the basis, I'm not surprised: the audience must be bored to death! Yet, an app cannot kill a thinking person.

If you're the one doing critical thinking only and you're not teaching your audience critical thinking, then whoever you are, you're average, ordinary. If you have used PowerPoint and not demanded that your audience challenge your presentation, you're just another uncritical user of PowerPoint.

I have done a 30-minute lecture using only PowerPoint and only text, but I did not bore my listeners – while I was explaining, right on the screen I highlighted the keywords on each page and made them grow bigger and bigger second after second right before everyone's eyes – they became readable even at the back of the computer room. Can you do that in PowerPoint? I already did, 3 years ago. And I'm 76 now.

Mr Smith says, "The bullet point-ization of information is making us stupid and irresponsible." Not me, but PowerPoint users are very fond of using bullets to explain a concept – even if the concept does not call for a list to be understood. The bulleted list is for the lazy ones who do not want to think for themselves.

It is not the bullets that are making us stupid – I have seen the enemy and it is US. We do not completely analyze what we want to explain, and the easiest solution is a bulleted list.

You have to master your content as much as you have to master your app. You cannot emphasize the power of your words if you do not know how to use PowerPoint optimally.

It would be nice if like Thomas Baldwin, we had written a proposition on PowerPoint and explained it to the whole congregation in such a manner as to convince us. But no, PowerPoint presentations are just like that, text following text (or table), and hardly explained except in bullets.

Mr Smith is vehement in saying that:

But the lectures I attended had left me in no doubt that Microsoft’s wildly successful “presentation” program is not just inimical to, but destructive of, deep thought, and could have been scientifically designed to put the most eager mind to sleep. The more I inquired into why this might be, the more I began to see its somnolent reflection everywhere.

What is "deep thought" anyway, Mr Smith? In the above image that accompanied your piece, I can see that the subject matter is "Principles of Marketing" – what would constitute deep thinking there? The simple list onscreen doesn't look like deep thinking to me.

Mr Smith also says that:

(PowerPoint) enthusiasts claim that it emboldens nervous speakers and forces everyone to present information in an ordered way. To an extent, both contentions are true. But the price of this is that the speaker dominates the audience absolutely. Where the space around and between points on a blackboard is alive with possibility, the equivalent space on a PP screen is dead. Bullet points enforce a rigidly hierarchical authority, which has not necessarily been earned. One either accepts them in toto, or not at all. And by the time the faulty logic is identified, the screen has been replaced by a new one as the speaker breezes on.

Like I said, bullets are not products of critical thinking. Not usually. Even then, there is no rule that you cannot interrupt a PowerPoint speaker if you don't understand anything. The audience must be critical thinkers too!

Bullets are the lazy man's guide to thinking – PowerPoint does not encourage such thinking, but we endure bulleted PowerPoint presentations and so we are to blame for the lack of critical thinking that goes into each PowerPoint presentation!

Mr Smith says that, according to the Harvard Business Review, "bullets leave critical relationships unspecified." My point, exactly! But that is not the fault of PowerPoint; it is the fault of the one making the presentation. It is not a failure in presentation – it is a failure in thinking.

Mr Smith says, "Through PowerPoint, everything has a tendency to resemble a pitch rather than a discussion." That is the ideal of PowerPoint, Mr Smith; and the ideal role of the presenter is to discuss it.

Mr Smith says there was General Colin Powell's "fuzzy pitch for war with Iraq" through a PowerPoint presentation. He quotes Brigadier General McMaster who did "subsequently liken the proliferation of PP presentations in the military to an 'internal threat', saying, 'It's dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control." If the audience did not question those presentations, why blame PowerPoint for their ignorance?

Mr Smith says he spoke to a friend who told him that when he removed PowerPoint from lecture theatres, his students demanded it back, "because without it they had to organize their own notes."

With PowerPoint, a good teacher should be able to organize his own notes around his own ideas well – and yet present them in such a way that the learners clearly understand that they should attempt themselves to regurgitate the presentation in their own manner, to understand it better. That is the only way to teach; that is the only way to learn – teach your students to think for themselves.

If with your PowerPoint presentation, you bore your audience with details, you're not making them think; you're not thinking either. Here is a simple-not-so-simple definition (Hongkong University, philosophy.hku.hk):

Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally about what to do or what to believe.

If you are intellectually honest, with each PowerPoint presentation, you must aim to make your audience think critically, and not simply crank out bulleted lists after bulleted lists. The dull use of an app, like PowerPoint, only points to a dull user.

The ones killing critical thought are the speakers, lecturers, marketers etc. They do not think critically over their own PowerPoint presentations.

Mr Smith says, "Lecturing is a form of performance and must be treated as such." That is incorrect. A great lecture is critical thinking presented in parts so that, ultimately, everyone finds the whole.

Are you a user or abuser of PowerPoint? If you don't stop to think of what you're putting into your presentation, you are an abuser: Shame on you!

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