Helen Edwards: Step away from the PowerPoint

Evidence is mounting that less really is more when it comes to the effective presentation of data.

As a young account manager in advertising, one of my duties was to ensure that the slides for big meetings were all present, correct and the right way up in the carousel.

Yes, carousel. In those Palaeolithic days, circa 1989, slide content had to be shipped out for processing 48 hours in advance, then ordered on a light-box and stacked oh-so-carefully in the round plastic container - 80 in each, I recall. Sometimes we would head into a meeting with a small tower of these carousels and the looks on the recipients' faces told us they knew what they were in for.

When PowerPoint came along, life got easier for young account managers, who could now devote more time to sitting at the back of focus groups, cutting up images for mood boards, and drinking.

Bullet-point torture

Two decades on, it has become fashionable to blame PowerPoint for the torture of the bullet-point format and dreary slide content, but these sins, I can tell you from experience, long preceded the technological advance.

What PowerPoint has done, though, is make the offences easier to commit. Like a mini-fridge in a bedroom, the sheer ease of the programme encourages excess where moderation would be wiser. Another chart? Why not? It is the matter of a moment.

There is also something about those default settings that nudges you, not just toward bullet-point ordering, but also to hierarchical nesting, with smaller dots and dashes everywhere, like a mangle of Morse code.

If you're one of those marketers who, like me, feels guilty about too much charting, and makes an annual resolution to do less, there is now a body of academic research to stiffen that resolve.

Unjustified authority

A healthy corrective is Yiannis Gabriel's 2008 analysis of studies into how the medium corrupts the message. An important finding is that bullet-point lists impart an unjustified authority, and that people infer a causal connection between one point and the next, even when there is none.

Gabriel actually experimented in his lectures, first rearranging bullet points randomly across charts. He was surprised to find it easy to extemporise in his presentation of the resulting nonsensical order, and more surprised that his students appeared not to notice.

The data-visualisation guru, Edward R Tufte, has long inveighed against PowerPoint, accusing it of degrading the quality of information. In a biting 2003 essay, he even implicated the system in the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster.

Tufte's counsel is to hand out printed notes before presentations. He is also right to lampoon the common practice of simply copying the PowerPoint charts into the take-away document, which, he says, are frequently 'physically thick and intellectually thin'.

Most serious for marketers, though, is that, in a discursive discipline, any form of chart presentation sets up an uncomfortable, one-way dynamic.

I will post links to the Gabriel and Tufte papers on Twitter. Meanwhile, it's a case of practising what they preach, and reverting to a more open, chart-free style whenever possible. It won't be easy to forgo the convenience of PowerPoint, but it is time to bite the bullet.

Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand. Follow her on Twitter: @helenedw


- PowerPoint began its life as an Apple Macintosh programme called Presenter, the brainchild of two Berkeley tech geeks back in 1983. Only in 1987, when Microsoft bought its owner Forethought for $14m and adapted the software to its Windows OS, did PowerPoint as we know it today come into being.

- Nowadays, according to Microsoft's own estimate, about 1m PowerPoint presentations are going on at any one time. That doesn't mean that much information is sinking in, however: a study by Rexi Media found that people forget about 70% of slides within two days of the presentation.

- The average slide contains 40 words, usually laid out in a bullet-point format.

- Although Guinness World Records does not recognise the world's longest PowerPoint presentation as an official category, consensus on the web points toward Rebekah Rousi's 2008 talk at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels. Breaking down the structure of language took her 27 hours and more than 800 charts.

- A final word from Edward Tufte: 'Power corrupts. PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.'


Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus
Brand Republic Jobs

subscribe now


Waitrose boosts content strategy with 'Weekend Kitchen with Waitrose' C4 tie-up
Hottest virals: Cute puppies star in Pedigree ad, plus Idris Elba and Fruyo
Amnesty International burns candles to illuminate new hope
Toyota achieves the impossible by calming angry Roman drivers
Tom of Finland's 'homoerotic' drawings made into stamps
YouTube reveals user habits to appeal to 'older' marketers
Ex-M&S marketing chief Steven Sharp consulting at WPP
Wolff Olins reveals new CEO after Apple poaches Karl Heiselman
Glasgow offers £30,000 prize to best digital idea for 2014 Commonwealth Games
Google's revenues surge but shares drop as it grapples with transition to mobile
Facebook beats Twitter to most 'marketing friendly' social media site crown, says DMA
Fableists believe children like Finn should be outdoors enjoying life
Homebase, Baileys and Camelot join the line-up at Media360
MasterCard renews Rugby World Cup sponsorship to push cashless message
Lynx unleashes £9m 'Peace invasion' campaign
Social Brands 100 Youth: Pizza Hut most social youth brand in UK
Cheryl Cole is wild and arresting in new L'Oreal work
Morrisons told not to show alcohol ads during YouTube nursery rhymes
O2 head of brand Shadi Halliwell departs after 23 years at company in restructure
Tesco hit by further sales decline as it turns to digital Clubcard and social network
Branding guru Wally Olins dies aged 83
Duracell short film captures epic Transatlantic voyage
Ash runs Tinder experiment to show smokers are less desirable to opposite sex
British Airways teams up with Gerry Cottle Jnr for summer of rooftop film screenings
Arklu says 'girls can be superheroes too' with doll design competition
Coke enters squash market with Oasis Mighty Drops
Virgin Galactic signs up Land Rover as space flight sponsor
Motorola marketer Andrew Morley departs as Google gears up for sale to Lenovo
US Airways apologises after tweeting obscene image at a customer
Mumsnet admits users' emails and passwords accessed via Heartbleed bug