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Blog // Thoughts
December 8, 2005

The Spoken Word And The Projected Word: Part One

Back in August 2003, I wrote a short essay entitled ‚ÄòThe Spoken Word and the Projected Word.‚Äô I‚Äôll be posting the essay in sections over the next 3 days. Here is part one, Whilst thumbing through a recent edition of The Economist I stumbled upon an usual advertisement; a black and white picture of a […]

Back in August 2003, I wrote a short essay entitled ‘The Spoken Word and the Projected Word.’ I’ll be posting the essay in sections over the next 3 days. Here is part one,

Whilst thumbing through a recent edition of The Economist I stumbled upon an usual advertisement; a black and white picture of a Stalin era parade upon which cartoon style thought balloons had been superimposed, emerging from the minds of the gathered ranks of military and one speech caption, saying “next slide please,” attributed to a grandiose statue of Stalin himself.

The advertisement was for an essay “on how PowerPoint presentation slide ware corrupts thought.” I was intrigued. The idea that the common practice of using such media to ‘present’ and ‘illustrate’ ideas was a form of intellectual totalitarianism was rather compelling. So, after a simple online transaction and a few days wait I had in my hands a copy of Edward Tufte’s ‘The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint.’

Tufte, an emeritus professor at Yale University, is an expert in the communication of information, or as he puts it “information design.” This means the way information is arranged, portrayed and communicated in graphs, charts, tables, maps, etc. He is particularly interested in the way the layout, or design used to communicate information can sometimes work against the idea that is being communicated. ‘The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint’ is not, however, a dull academic work (none of Tufte’s books are ever dull). Rather it is an elegant, passionate and in the end, very persuasive argument for a re-evaluation of PowerPoint presentations as a tool for communication.

Broadly speaking, Tufte’s essay makes three claims. The first, rather uncontroversially is that in hands of the inept and ill-prepared, PowerPoint is an unprecedented weapon for producing collective boredom. Everyone who has sat through ill-conceived presentations replete with meaningless charts and obvious points knows this, even if only intuitively. The second claim, that PowerPoint can sometimes delude poorly organised speakers into believing they have communicated simply because they have ordered their ‘ideas’ into bullet points and pre-prepared style sheets, follows naturally from the first.

Most interesting is Tufte’s third claim, that PowerPoint has its own inherent cognitive style and that by virtue of its form as a medium always has the propensity to oversimplify complex information. Because of PowerPoint’s ready-made ease of use, it tempts the presenter/writer into making the content fit the data, rather than the other way round. The risk, or as Tufte puts it, ‘the cost” of this is that the content itself ends up being diluted or misrepresented when it is made to fit PowerPoint.

“Three costs result from the cognitive style characteristic of the standard default PP presentation: foreshortening of evidence and thought, low spatial resolution, a deeply hierarchical single-path structure as the model for organising every type of content, breaking up narrative and data into slides and minimal fragments, rapid temporal sequencing of thin information rather than focussed spatial analysis, conspicuous decoration and Pluff, a preoccupation with format not content, an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch” pg4.

Technorati Tags: PowerPoint, Slide Ware, Presentation, Media

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