By Cliff Atkinson
Although it might seem that Edward Tufte had the
last word on PowerPoint with his essay The
Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, it turns out a number of
experts disagree with him, in some cases very strongly. Here is what Don
Norman, Gene Zelazny, Bob Horn, Seth Godin, and Rich Mayer said in
recent interviews at Sociable Media:
Norman, cofounder of the Neilsen Norman Group and author of the classic The Design of Everyday Things (full interview here):
"Tufte misses the point completely. His famous
denunciation of the NASA slides, where he points out that critical
information was buried, is not a denunciation of PowerPoint, as he
claims. The point was buried because the presenters did not think it
important. They were wrong, but it is always easier to find blame in
hindsight than with foresight. The slides matched their understanding
of the importance of the issues.
"Tufte is criticizing the symptom. Tufte has
politicized this to benefit his seminars - but the correct culprit is
the erroneous analysis of the tests, not the way the engineers decided
to present it to their audience.
"Tufte is correct when he complains about
misleading data and bad summarization that oversimplifies and may even
omit important footnotes and qualifications about the data. Tufte is
wrong when he confuses great depth of detail with a good talk.
"Tufte would overwhelm the talk audience with
more data than can be assimilated in a talk. He doesn't seem to
realize that there are really three different items involved here:
1. The notes the speaker will use (which should
be seen only by the speaker).
2. The slides the audience will
3. Handouts that will be taken away for later study.
"A talk can NEVER present as much information as
a written paper. Talks should be pointers to the important material.
But neither the spoken talk nor the accompanying notes - PowerPoint or
not - should be confused with or used for the real information."
Horn, political scientist and Stanford scholar, and author of Visual
Language: Global Communication for the 21st Century (full interview
"Tufte's monograph makes some good points
but is also in places, confused, incoherent, and superficial. Here's
my view on the key issues:
"Bulleted lists. He's
correct about 'Bullet Outlines Dilute Thought.' It is difficult to
show causal relationships in bullet lists. But this is not unique to
PowerPoint. Dilution of causal thinking happens as much on paper as in
PowerPoint. And overlooking causality is dangerous. However, this is
not original to Tufte; it's Shaw, Brown, & Bromiley's point (whom
he cites). The original authors whom he quotes explain the
causality point better than Tufte.
information. However, when Tufte talks about presenting
statistical information, we should all pay attention. He's better than
many in this area (pp. 14-15 and 18-19 in the essay). But he somehow
misses part of the point that many communication situations are not
about analyzing the data, they are about communicating the results of
an analysis and not simply showing the details of the analysis.
"Too many words or not enough words? And, of course,
he's right about people putting too many words on their bullet slides
and turning their backs to their audiences and reading them. But Tufte
is somewhat muddleheaded about how much to put on a slide when he
criticizes the example: 'Correlation is not causation' as being 'over
abbreviated.' Tufte assumes that the speaker is not going to say
anything along with presenting the slide, i.e. that the speaker is not
going to say "Empirically observed covariation is a necessary but not
sufficient condition for causality." He says, 'Many true statements
are too long to fit on a PP slide, but this does not abbreviate the
truth to make the words fit' (p. 4 of the essay). But of course,
"Empirically observed covariation is a necessary but not sufficient
condition for causality" can quite easily fit on a slide.
"Hierarchy. He's flat out mixed up about hierarchy.
He is right about not having 4 to 6 levels of hierarchy on a single
slide. But he tends to condemn the whole notion of hierarchy as
'medieval in its preoccupation.' Hierarchy is one of the major ways we
manage complexity. And we shouldn't hide the levels of hierarchical
analysis. But he's right about the specific case (the Boeing-NASA
slides) as confusing in showing hierarchy.
He is really wrong when he suggests that you should use hardly
any subheads in writing prose. Actually the opposite is the case. You
should use an informative subhead for every paragraph. My principle
has been: put a subhead on every paragraph. This enables your reader
to scan and skip more easily and hence read more efficiently. And it
enables many writers and presenters to think more clearly.
"Different kinds of presentation. Tufte completely
ignores many different kinds of presentations. He seems to think all
we do is analyze and present statistics! On the contrary. Among the
presentation purposes that come immediately to mind are planning,
overview, inspiration and motivation, explanation, and reporting. In
all of these, PowerPoint can be useful. To my mind, it's not
PowerPoint that is at fault, but the lack of skills in using it.
Tufte's naiveté about this aspect, I would guess, comes from being an
academic for most of his life and lacking much experience in business
"Teaching metaphor. Finally, he's
right about the teaching metaphor for presentations: 'The core ideas
of teaching - explanation, reasoning, finding things out, questioning,
content, evidence, credible authority not patronizing authoritarianism
- are contrary to the hierarchical market-pitch
Richard E. Mayer, Ph.D., professor of psychology at
the University of California, Santa Barbara, named the most prolific
researcher in the field of educational psychology, and author of 18
books and more than 250 articles and chapters (full interview here):
"Edward Tufte has done much to draw attention to
the design of effective graphics. However, I am not sure what is meant
by the assertion that "PowerPoint is rarely a good method." If this
statement means that PowerPoint is often misused, I wholeheartedly
agree. However, I do not think it makes sense to refer to PowerPoint
as a method. Instead...PowerPoint is a medium that can be used
effectively — that is, with effective design methods — or
ineffectively, that is with ineffective design methods. We would not
necessarily say that books are rarely a good method, because books can
be designed using effective or ineffective methods. In my opinion, the
same principle applies to PowerPoint."
Gene Zelazny, author of the classic, Say It With Charts, and its sequel,
Say It With Presentations; director of visual
communications for a major consulting firm since 1961; and a presenter
at all of the major business schools around the world (full interview
"With incredible and due respect to Edward
Tufte, and I mean incredible and due respect for his books, his role
as a teacher, his ideas, I disagree with his criticisms of PowerPoint.
Going back some 45 years, and having lived through the eras of
producing visuals with pencils and varityping machines and India ink
and ruling pens and protractors and slide rules and zip-a-tone and Dr.
Martin’s washes and speedball pens and …, PowerPoint is one of the
most advanced and sophisticated production tool on the market, which
deserves a standing ovation.
"One area Edward is arguing
against is its misuse and abuse in terms of the animations that have
been built in. Here I’d have to agree with him. As I state in one of
my 10 commandments of onscreen presentations: “Thou shalt not use
animations unless it helps to make a point.” Otherwise, it runs the
risk of the audience wondering if what they’re paying for the
presentation is being wasted on being gimmicky, as well as running the
risk of appearing to speak below the level of intelligence of the
audience. That said however, it doesn’t mean we should abolish the
tool as Edward would have us do. It’s like blaming cars for the
accidents that drivers cause."
Seth Godin, author of five bestselling books and
recently chosen as one of "21 Speakers for the Next Century” by
Successful Meetings (full interview here):
"Edward and I disagree. He thinks people are a
lot smarter than I do. He likes packing a ton of information into a
slide and letting people tease it out (same as the Napoleon graph in
his first book). I go in the opposite direction. If you can get the
info across at first glance, you win. I'm in awe of his marketing
Responses by Don Norman are © 2004 Don Norman;
by Bob Horn are © 2004 R. E. Horn; and by Rich Mayer are © 2004 Richard