The sociology of powerpoint presentations

Slide uit de beroemde ppt presentatie van Colin PowellIt all started with a powerpoint presentation… Colin Powell big lyin’ presentation to the UN to justify the War in Iraq. For Franck Frommer, Powerpoint (and the ubiquitous Powerpoint presentation) is a reflection of the way we think and process knowledge and the sociological dynamics that underlie these changes.

In this interview with Le Monde, he describes these dynamics. First off, Powerpoint has become hegemonic in that it is used by over 500 million people worldwide and has a quasi-monopoly over presentation software. It is also a skill everyone is expected to have. Anything, any type of content is expected to be turned into a Powerpoint presentation (”just do a Powerpoint!”).

In the 1980s – 1990s, Word was the hegemonic software. But we have switched from word processing and written text to esthetic and bulleted content with its own codes, grammar and rhetoric.

Part of the triumph of ppt is the fact that the price of entry is really low and that it is possible, without much training to play around with it, with easy multimedia integration, transitions, etc. Finding the worst Powerpoint presentations is a fun Internet meme (see here) that makes fun of the amateurs who go overboard with features. At the same time, for Frommer, Powerpoint emerged on the market at the same time that businesses were undergoing transformations to flatten hierarchies and engage in management by projects. Collaboration and transversality became the name of the game and worker’s creativity became the buzzword. Which meant, organizationally, more meetings to discuss with a wider range of people, hence the need for a simple common language.

This was also the time where the proliferation of consultants of all kinds (Lord knows we have our share in higher ed! They’re the bane of our existence). They show up in teams of two or three, with laptops and one-size-fit-all ready Powerpoint presentations to impart their expert wisdom. The slide is their main mode of communication and the Powerpoint presentation is their tool. That is how they pitch their product and it may be the product itself.

Sociologically, the omnipresence of Powerpoint has to do with the current trend towards quickly spreading simple information. Also, Goffman would have had a field day with the way people manage their presentation of self through their Powerpoint presentations. The presentation becomes a performance and the Powerpoint is a display of the skills of the presenter at the same time as it sustains and shapes the self (see how much we pay attention to Steve Jobs’s presentations, glitches and all).

At the same time, the Powerpoint presentation is also an instrument of control whereby managers and supervisors may demand that workers present their work through the software. The Powerpoint then becomes the tool through which workers respond to such summons and have to demonstrate their activity in the context of precarization.

But for Frommer, precisely because it simplifies and reduces everything to bullet points, it easily hides the emptiness of propositions behind buzzwords and provides visual distractions and quick changes that don’t give the audience a chance to critically examines the ideas or proposals presented to them. There is simply no way to express precise, detailed and well-articulated ideas or subjects through Powerpoint. The presentations then give the illusion of mastery, comprehension and control over a subject matter. Which means, again, that the most serious issues cannot be discussed through that medium. There is no room for complexity, complicated relations between economic, cultural and political elements. Powerpoint stifles discussion and reasoned argumentation through the bullet point format. It is surface over substance.

So, paradoxically, at the same time as workers are enjoined to use their creativity, it is forcibly channeled through the most impoverishing format where all that matters are strong points, key concepts, and action plans. All neatly lined up. Quite often, after the presentation itself, the presentation is the only document of reference that is preserved (”I missed the meeting, can you send me the Powerpoint?”).

And yes, of course, Powerpoint does dumb down: short titles and subtitles, use of slogans and buzzwords selectively picked from the world of business, tired cliches, massive use of infinitives that summon action. Manipulation of information gets much easier. Then come the famous bullet points that isolate, disconnect and eliminate causality. It is reasoning by menu. No continuity.

So, for Frommer, this is dangerous. It is reflective of the penetration of an anti-intellectual attitude that rejects thorough exploration of issues from a variety of perspectives, where thinking is devalued and considered inferior to doing, and doing fast. Where complexity and critical thinking are considered useless as opposed to snazzy esthetic gimmicks where the presenter uses all the tricks he has learned in a speech class. Where performance matters more than substance. Where getting the audience to look at the shiny objects on screen is a sleight of the hand to avoid certain types of discussions and subjects or to cover the presenter’s shortcomings, superficial knowledge while giving the impression of expertise (impression management again).

Note that the audience always has to wait until the end of the entire presentation before asking questions, being captive to the format controlled by the presenter (except when the audience is higher in hierarchy and power than the presenter, like presenting your work to your boss, in which case interruptions can be made but often dealt with as “if I may just get to the next slide…”). At the same time, the audience does not really have to listen since the slides are often available on the spot as handouts or later as reference document, which also destroys potential discussion and critical examination with the presenter.

Personally, I NEVER use Powerpoint presentation in my teaching. I have a lot of visuals ready but I use them in the order in which students’ comments lead me, because I am not afraid of being sidetracked by questions. So what if I don’t get through all the content I had planned? I can do that next time. A Powerpoint presentation would feel like a straightjacket to me.

I also think that using Powerpoint presentations is antithetical with thinking sociologically (see my previous post), understood as unveiling causality and connections and interdependencies. Those cannot be summarized in bullet points. Not to mention that these causality, connections and interdependencies are dynamic and cannot be captured by a static and frozen bulleted list.

Nothing signifies more the corporatization of education than continuous assessment, curriculum mapping and ubiquitous (yet faulty, phony and ultimately useless) measurements that can be neatly lined up as bulleted points on Powerpoint presentations offered to university and college communities as quarterly reports. But once one gets past the word salad and the conceptual fads, there is truly no substance.

By Socprof (@socprof)

  1. 3

    “missed the meeting, can you send me the Powerpoint?”

    Ironisch genoeg is een goede PP hier niet, en een slechte PP hier wel geschikt voor.

    Een goede PP bevat vooral illustraties bij het gepresenteerde, en is dus niet als zelfstandig document bruikbaar (denk aan een NOS journaal zonder geluidsband)

    Een slechte PP is doorgaans gestructureerd als de spiekbrief voor de spreker (die dus weinig anders meer doet dan de slides oplezen) en is daarom juist weer wél geschikt als zelfstandig document.

  2. 8

    It is also a skill everyone is expected to have.

    En een skill die niemand heeft. Hoewel, de knoppen bedienen dat is de skill die iedereen moet hebben. Een helder verhaal gebaseerd op een sterk idee, een narratief die zorgt voor identificatie en bijdraagt aan zelfs maar bewustwording: een zeldzaam goed.

    Van die 500 miljoen gebruikers zijn er 1000 die het licht hebben gezien. Dat zijn de gebruikers die zichzelf de vraag hebben gesteld: sta ik hier voor mezelf te presenteren, of neem ik mijn publiek serieus?

  3. 9

    @ jan

    Het zijn niet de dia’s. Je kunt het nog zo updressen als je wil, verhaal crap = presentatie crap.


  4. 10

    Het verhaal gaat niet over Powerpoint, maar over visuele presentaties. Ik maak mijn presentaties vrijwel altijd in PDF, maar de argumenten blijven. Powerpoint maakt het je wel erg gemakkelijk om lelijke en onfunctionele baksels te produceren, maar het gaat hier over de communicatievorm op zich.

    En daarvoor geldt (zoals voor alles): indien goed gebruikt, kan het erg nuttig zijn. Als de presentator zich ervoor inspant, kan een boodschap goed overgebracht worden. Daarentegen is het mogelijk om onkunde en gebrek aan kennis te verdoezelen. Een getraind publiek prikt daar echter snel doorheen.

    One question for the author. You say: “Personally, I NEVER use Powerpoint presentation in my teaching.” What do you do when you give a talk at a conference?

  5. 12

    @Baron E

    In conferences and presentations, I might use visuals of data, graphs, maps, etc. and I might provide an outline but not necessarily in ppt (there are other ways of doing that).

    When I teach, my visuals are usually in a browser windows, open in multiple tabs from which I can switch back and forth, depending on where the discussion is going. That way, I am not bound by my slide order.

    @knelistonie of course it could, but where would be the fun in that? :-)

  6. 13

    HTML, Keynote, PDF, Powerpoint, it’s basically the same with each form its advantages and failings. When used well, each tool can do the job. In my field, physics, it is even acceptable to hold a blackboard presentation when for instance a certain derivation is the main point.