PowerPoint Presentations:
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly



The Pros and Cons of PowerPoint

What PowerPoint does best

What else you can do with a projector

PowerPoint Strengths

PowerPoint Weaknesses

PowerPoint Tips

In general



Good fit



For Teachers

For Students

Tips for computer slide shows

Graphic design tips



I.    So you have a new option for making presentations! How well does it work?

A.  Most people believe that a presentation with visual aids is more persuasive.

1. Two much-quoted studies by the 3M/Wharton School (A Study of the Effects of the Use of Overhead Transparencies on Business Meetings, Wharton Applied Research Center, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, 1981) and the University of Minnesota/3M (Vogel, Douglas R., Gary W. Dickson, and John A. Lehman, Persuasion and the Role of Visual Presentation Support: The UM/3M Study, 1986) conclude that visual aids:

i.    improve communication effectiveness

ii.    improve audience’s perceptions of presenter

iii.   improve speaker’s confidence


2.  The Minnesota/3M study concludes that an audience is 43% more likely to act on a speaker’s message if he or she uses visual aids.


B. However, these studies were conducted in the 1980’s, before the development of PowerPoint and inexpensive LCD projectors. Today, a presentation with PowerPoint is not necessarily more persuasive. Consider these examples:

1. Ford Motor Company limited PowerPoint presentations to only black and white charts—no color, no text.

2. Hugh Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ordered military presenters to purge their presentations of overblown graphics and special effects. (WSJ, April 26, 2000)

3. Scott McNealy, president of Sun Microsystems, forbade the use of PowerPoint at Sun in 1997.

4. One striking observation of the Columbia Shuttle Accident Investigation board was that chronic use of PowerPoint communication at NASA prevented the effective flow of information that contributed to the Columbia disaster (Read the excerpt here).


      As information gets passed up an organization hierarchy, from people who do analysis to mid-level managers to high-level leadership, key explanations and supporting information is filtered out. In this context, it is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation.

At many points during its investigation, the Board was surprised to receive similar presentation slides from NASA officials in place of technical reports. The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA.

C. PowerPoint presentations have become ubiquitous in corporate boardrooms and business meetings. Textbook publishers try to hook teachers by offering CDs crammed with prepackaged PowerPoint slides. Student presenters snort up PowerPoint like a fiend looking for a fix.

D.  Is PowerPoint a blessing or a curse to an effective presentation? A careful presenter can make the most of PowerPoint's strengths, but only with a healthy dose of communicative discipline.

II. PowerPoint does best what it was first created to do: Charts and Graphs.

A.  Back in the 80’s, when the PC was born, chart programs like Harvard Graphics were an easy way to make graphs that could be made into slides and transparencies.

B. Harvard Graphics started to include general presentation tips as a value-added service to its users.

C.  When Windows took off, Microsoft began to develop PowerPoint as a windows-based alternative to older programs like Harvard Graphics. Microsoft bundled PowerPoint in its office suite, putting a presentation tool on desks around the world. It was a wonderful solution in search of a problem. Microsoft added content templates like a Zig Ziglar sales presentation or a Dale Carnegie introduction. They added ease of use features to allow busy executives to spill out slides like turning on a tap.

D.  Thanks to PowerPoint, most executives now associate giving a presentation with computer-generated graphics.

III. But PowerPoint is not synonymous with presenting or teaching, with visual aids or even with a computer projector. An effective presenter must be familiar with, as Aristotle put it 2500 years ago, “all the available means of persuasion.” (Rhetoric,  1355b, 25)

A.  To understand these means, first consider the other things you can do with a computer projector.

1. You can project a piece of software for a demonstration or a student problem: SPSS, LearningSpace, Word, Excel.

Excel File

2. You can project a web page for discussion or analysis.


3. You can project an animation from an encyclopedia or reference source.


4. You can project a single quotation for discussion.


5. You can project a white board that allows for more freeform discussion.

     It may take some planning to work out these elements, but effective teaching always takes planning.


B.   If you are going to use PowerPoint, you need a firm grasp of it’s strengths and weaknesses.


1. PowerPoint works best for things that are presented visually, not verbally. It helps when you need to draw a picture.


i.    Communication delivered over multiple channels is more efficient than communication over a single channel. Multiple channels make it more likely that the whole message will be received. An appropriate picture adds another channel.


ii.    A picture aids in memory by making a visual connection to an abstract idea.

a. Memory rests on connections.

b. A vivid picture forms a solid connection.


iii.   PowerPoint makes it easy to create visuals, and, by using a template, make it easy to be consistent.


2. PowerPoint, however, has notable weaknesses.


i.    It can easily be abused.


a. It's too easy to create slides. Because you can crank them out quickly, you make far more than are appropriate for the presentation.


b. It wastes time. You can suck up precious time tweaking a presentation. “It’s like alcohol in the hands of a drunk,” says a presentation coach in Greenville. One military advisor from Duke University said that the U.S. military, instead of getting our allies to use PowerPoint, should give it to the Iraqis. “We’d never have to worry about them again” (WSJ, April 26, 2000).


c. It takes too much control away from the presenter. It makes it too easy to start the presentation with PowerPoint instead of starting with ideas and using PowerPoint to reinforce them.

1) This is the same problem Kenneth Burke discussed when reviewing Machiavelli’s The Prince: “by treating the book [The Prince] as a manual of ‘administrative rhetoric,’ we can place the stress where it belongs: on the problem of the orator’s ability to choose the act best suited to the situation, rather than choosing the act best suited to the expression of his own nature [or available technology].”


d. It makes for ugly presentations. Most people are not trained in design. The computer puts tools in average hands that were once reserved only for artists. The result is ugly presentations.


e. It can actually impede attention. Military analysts conjecture that recent appropriations from Capitol Hill have stalled because Congress cannot decipher the Army’s complex and tedious slides (WSJ, April 26, 2000).


f. It lends itself to unnecessary competition. Presenters—particularly students—become distracted with “dueling PowerPoint.”


ii.    It does not lend itself to spontaneous discussions in the classroom or boardroom. It is heavily scripted and is not a tool for discovery.


iii.   It does not handle text well.

a. The general rule for PowerPoint text is no more than three lines of text on a slide and no more than 6 words per line.


b. Therefore, if you try to put a lot of text in a presentation, you have to move through a lot of slides. The rapid movement does nothing to aid the presentation. Instead it detracts from the message.


iv.   It too easily becomes a replacement for the presenter, not a reinforcement. Instead of a visual aid for the speaker, the speaker becomes an audio aid for the slides. This strips the presentation of some of it’s most essential appeals.


a. Presenters rely too much on the slides for structure. Clear structure should still be part of the verbal presentation even with visual aids. The aids should reinforce the structure, not replace it. This is particularly troublesome for student presentations since students need to learn how to communicate structure verbally without visuals. If they rely on visuals for structure, they never learn how to do it themselves.


b. Presenters fail to establish the connections necessary to make their message memorable. They often rely too much on the visual slide to make the connection and neglect repetition, examples, metaphors and other devices that make a message memorable. Read more about the importance of connection and memory in learning, along with some practical memory tips.


c. Presenters fail to establish ethos, their most powerful appeal.

1) Ethos is the personal appeal of the speaker. It is classified by Aristotle as an “artistic proof” that the speaker fashions in his presentation.

2) It involves both verbal and nonverbal elements of the message and must be carefully managed for a presentation to succeed.

3) With PowerPoint, however, many of the elements that establish ethos are blunted or negated.

i) Speakers don’t look at the audience and the audience doesn’t look at the speaker.

ii) The subtle nonverbal cues are lost such as eye-contact, posture, etc.

iii) Presentations tend to be read off the slide or handouts flattening delivery.


v.   I would go so far as to say that almost all business presentations given with PowerPoint, with a little extra work, would be better—even much better—without it.

a. Often business presenters will say that effective presentations without PowerPoint may be possible, but they don’t have the time to learn these other methods.

1) What they are saying, in effect, is that they do not want to take a little time to maximize a critical business resource, but are content with inefficient methods.

2) George Orwell’s suggestion that bad language is linked to laziness applies to the abuse of PowerPoint in corporate communication. “This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.” We simply don’t want to work at words. We allow ready-made PowerPoint slides think our thoughts for us.


b. Business presenters feel that PowerPoint helps keep the audience’s attention.

1) Often, PowerPoint simply masks the fact that the presentation does not have enough intrinsic attention factors in itself.

2) In other words, an effective presentation should keep the audience’s attention without depending on visuals. The visuals should be aids, not commanders. They should reinforce the attention factors already present in the presentation. Read more about attention factors in presentations.


C.  When you use PowerPoint, keep these tips in mind.


1.   In General

i.    Purpose: Let your purpose be your guide. Out of all the things you could say or show, choose the things you should say and show to accomplish your purpose. Read more about developing a purpose for a presentation.


ii.   Options: Remember to consider “all the available means of persuasion.” There are many kinds of visual aids; chose the one that’s best (not the one that came bundled with your computer.) Read more about tips and options for visual aids in general.


iii.  Good fit: Use PowerPoint when it makes sense and resist the temptation to use it too often.

a. Use PowerPoint primarily for conveying a simple, generally informative message to a large group of people. It falters with deliberative messages or discussions with smaller groups.


b. Use PowerPoint for visual information. Do not use it for handouts, even though Microsoft has made it easy to do so.

1) “So often people develop what’s really a handout,” says Gaily Brickman, a consultant in Milwaukee. “I help them differentiate between a handout and presentation slides.” Handouts can provide extensive background, but slides, by contrast, should be brief and to the point; an audience member should be able to get the gist in one glance.


iv.  Simple: Keep the number of slides to a minimum. Use a few graphics that convey explicitly visual information or that stand as metaphors for ideas. Remember the general guidelines for using visual aids.

a. Consider this discussion from www.presentations.com.

    Any good presentation will have the presenter as its prime focus, he says; visuals should be used sparingly and only to reinforce the speaker’s credibility. How sparingly? To answer this question, Morgan tells the story of a client who started at a pace of one slide per minute (not unusual in the corporate world, he says) for a speech that could go up to three hours. After working with him for six months, Morgan gradually pared the client down to one single slide — albeit one with six pictures that could be highlighted in various ways throughout the speech.

    “It liberated him,” Morgan says. In fact, once the client broke his slide habit, he tripled his speaking fee.

    If one slide every three hours seems a bit spartan to you, remember that expecting an audience to simultaneously absorb information from the ear and the eye is a demonstrably inefficient way of getting your message across, Morgan says. And when you add another bad habit, printing your slides and handing them out ahead of time, “that’s the worst sin — you’re asking your audience to do three things at once.”


b. Avoid using slides for text.


c. Adopt the philosophy of architect Mies van der Rohe: “Less is more”


v.   Ethos: Remember to build your ethos throughout the presentation.


2.   For Teachers

i.    Use PowerPoint judiciously for a few key graphics or illustrations.


ii.   Avoid text slides. Use text occasionally as a reference point for big ideas; e.g. the three main objectives of a lesson.


iii.  Remember other kinds of visuals. Handouts may be a more appropriate alternative.


iv.  Don’t be seduced by textbook publishers that offer canned presentations that go with a textbook. You are the teacher. Not the publisher. Not the textbook. You make careful choices of what to use and what to avoid. A lot of what the publishers include is of little value.


v.   Avoid using PowerPoint for discussion or coaching sessions. In his Paedia Proposal, Mortimer Adler contends that most teachers are well-versed in giving lectures, a few know how to coach, but even fewer know how to lead a discussion. PowerPoint plays to our lecture habit. It does not facilitate spontaneous discussion or discovery.


vi.  Whatever media you use in the classroom, work to help students make connections.

a. Making connections is the foundation of memory and ingenuity. The Latin term ingenium refers to the ability to make connections between things that others may not see. Read more about memory and making connections.

b. Students learn as they make connections. An efficient use of visuals in the classroom can help students make connections between parts and the whole, between cause and effect, between problem and solution, between principle and practice.


3.   For Students

i.    Teach students to be strategic communicators. Out of all the things they could say, they should choose what they should say to do the job.

a. Forcing students to give a PowerPoint presentation can reinforce bad habits. Emphasize the basics of clear structure, solid attention factors, audience adaptation and ethos with or without PowerPoint.

b. Teaching students to rely on PowerPoint may be preparing them to enter a business world that has grown beyond it.

c. Avoid "dueling PowerPoint."


ii.   Teach students to consider “all the available means of persuasion:” other forms of visual aids, other means of persuasion.


iii.  Teach students to build their ethos.


iv.  Teach students to make structure clear without PowerPoint.


v.   Teach students to master the means of persuasion—not to be mastered by Microsoft’s notion of presentations.

D.    Samples

Here are some samples you can pick apart.

1.     Persuasive presentation done in PowerPoint but printed out as handout.

2.   Persuasive presentation with PowerPoint to accompany an oral presentation

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This page was last modified on Thursday, January 16, 2003.
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