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PowerPoint Doesn't Make You Dumb

Over the weekend, the New York Times ran a short article with the provocative title "PowerPoint Makes You Dumb". The author, Clive Thompson, puts together a criticism of a particular PowerPoint slide made by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board at NASA, and an Edward Tufte essay titled "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint" to come up with the conclusion that PowerPoint is the right tool when you have nothing to say and that it's "uniquely suited to our modern age of obfuscation."

Apparently the New York Times does not require classes in basic logic for its reporters. The syllogism underlying Thompson's article, such as it is, can be expressed this way:

People use PowerPoint to make some dumb slides
Therefore, PowerPoint makes you dumb.

Lest the logical fallacy there isn't sufficiently clear, let me tell you about my experience of raising a puppy in New York City. As part of training the puppy, we used to leave copious amounts of newspaper -- in this particular case, the New York Times -- on the bathroom floor. At least that way the newspapers would get wet, rather than the floor. From which we may conclude, by Thompson's impeccable logic, that the New York Times was the cause of the puppy's misadventures.

Now, I've bashed Microsoft just about as much as the next guy over the years. Certainly there are some things coming out of Redmond that I find to be just plain bad - for instance, the withering on the vine of Microsoft Access over the past several versions, or Microsoft's apparent inability to create a top-notch source code control system. But I do not put the existence of PowerPoint (or the rest of Office, for that matter) into this class.

If there's a problem with PowerPoint, it's not that it makes you dumb, it's that Microsoft has never taken the time to show us how it can make you smart. Over the years, the company has shown a charming naivete towards the uses of its tools. The corporate attitude has apparently been that it's enough to ship tools capable of world-class use, and then the customers will figure out how to use them. Instead, we thrash around, toss bullet points on slides, and never learn how to design an information-rich graphic.

In the Developer Tools Division, at least, this attitude is finally crumbling. Since the release of Visual Studio .NET, Microsoft has built up an excellent Patterns & Practices web site, with dozens of resources. These include substantial pieces of sample code, entire distributed applications, and book-length explanations of how to effectively use the tools. It's apparent that the folks behind the tools feel a strong interest in helping customers use them effectively.

On the Office side of the fence, the Office Online site has been improving, but it still has a ways to go to match the support that developers get from Microsoft. Sure, there are plenty of little tips on using PowerPoint features, as well as clip art and fresh templates. But there's plenty of room for more. How about some serious training in effective presentations, Microsoft? Heck, pay Edward Tufte to write a book about the effective use of PowerPoint and post it on the site. If Microsoft could add world-class training to world-class software, perhaps we'd start seeing articles on how PowerPoint makes you smart.

About the Author

Mike Gunderloy has been developing software for a quarter-century now, and writing about it for nearly as long. He walked away from a .NET development career in 2006 and has been a happy Rails user ever since. Mike blogs at A Fresh Cup.

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