A pig through the python

I just remembered a famous decision by Scott McNealy, the former head of Sun Microsystems, to ban PowerPoint from the Sun campus. I looked for an article to verify, and found one.

Apparently he trumpeted the productivity-enhancing effects of his Powerpoint ban. Sadly, whatever effect it had on their productivity or their creativity didn’t last, because as we all know they went down the tubes and had to be saved by Oracle of all things.

Kathleen Belleville, who worked at Powerpoint, argued: “now we’ve got highly paid people spending hours formatting slides because it’s more fun to do that than concentrate on what you’re going to say.” I find that convincing. The glitz and glamour of a presentation still has a disproportionate impact on the audience, and people know that, so they end up spending a lot of time messing with the formatting.

But I think the effect Powerpoint has had on its target audience is much worse: members of senior management are now so accustomed to bite-sized chunks of pre-digested “insight” that they have become addicted, and unable to digest facts on their own. I think that is dangerous.

A related and quite famous argument was made by Edward Tufte, who discovered that a NASA briefing which used PowerPoint as its presentation medium had led to a bad decision which doomed a space shuttle and its crew. However he criticizes the people creating the presentations and blames the bullet-point style of communication for leading to something like cognitive “rounding errors”.

Amazingly, I’ve heard colleagues interpret this same case as an example of the adverse effect of “overcomplicated” presentations with “busy” slides. Personally, I interpret it as a failure of management to fully parse the presented facts. I think a verbose report would have forced the readers to put some effort into comprehending the available data and understanding the situation.

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