New York Times
April 17, 1999
Words Go Right to the Brain, but Can They Stir the Heart?
Some Say Popular Software Debases Public Speaking
By LAURENCE ZUCKERMAN
The title of today's presentation is: "The Effect of Presentation
Software on Rhetorical Thinking," or "Is Microsoft Powerpoint Taking
Over Our Minds?"
I will begin by making a joke.
Then I will take you through each of my points in a linear fashion.
Then I will sum up again at the end. Unfortunately, because of the
unique format of this particular presentation, we will not be able to
Were Willy Loman to shuffle through his doorway today instead of in the
late 1940's, when Arthur Miller wrote "Death of a Salesman," he might
still be carrying his sample case, but he would also be lugging a
laptop computer featuring dozens of slides illustrating his strongest
pitches complete with bulleted points and richly colored bars and
Progress? Many people believe that the ubiquity of prepackaged computer
software that helps users prepare such presentations has not only taken
much of the life out of public speaking by homogenizing it at a low
level, but has also led to a kind of ersatz thought that is devoid of
Scott McNealy, the shoot-from-the-lip chairman and chief executive of
Sun Microsystems, who regularly works himself into a lather criticizing
the Microsoft Corporation, announced two years ago that he was
forbidding Sun's 25,000 employees to use Powerpoint, the Microsoft
presentation program that leads the market. (The ban was not enforced.)
Some computer conferences have expressly barred presenters from using
slides as visual aids during their talks, because they think it puts
too much emphasis on the sales pitch at the expense of content.
Psychologists, computer scientists and software developers are more
divided about the effect of Powerpoint and its competitors. Some are
sympathetic to the argument that the programs have debased public
speaking to the level of an elementary school filmstrip.
"The tools we use to shape our thinking with the help of digital
computers are not value free," said Steven Johnson, the author of
"Interface Culture," a 1997 study of the designs used to enable people
to interact with computers.
Johnson uses Powerpoint himself (for example, during a recent talk he
gave at Microsoft) but nonetheless said, "There is certain kind of
Powerpoint logic that is brain numbing."
Presentation programs are primarily used for corporate and sales
pitches. Still, the approach has leaked into the public discourse.
Think of Ross Perot's graphs or President Clinton's maps. Critics argue
such programs contribute to the debasement of rhetoric. "Try to imagine
the 'I have a dream' speech with Powerpoint," said Cliff Nass, an
associate professor of communication at Stanford University who
specializes in human-computer interaction.
Other people, however, have made the opposite argument, saying that
Powerpoint has elevated the general level of discourse by forcing
otherwise befuddled speakers to organize their thoughts and by giving
audiences a visual source of information that is a much more efficient
way for humans to learn than by simply listening.
"We are visual creatures," said Steven Pinker, a psychology professor
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of several
books about cognition including "The Language Instinct." "Visual things
stay put, whereas sounds fade. If you zone out for 30 seconds -- and
who doesn't? -- it is nice to be able to glance up on the screen and
see what you missed."
Pinker argues that human minds have a structure that is not easily
reprogrammed by media. "If anything, Powerpoint, if used well, would
ideally reflect the way we think," he said.
But Powerpoint too often is not used well, as even Pinker admitted. He
is on a committee at M.I.T. that is updating the traditional writing
requirement to include both speech and graphic communication. "M.I.T.
has a reputation for turning out Dilberts," he said. "They may be
brilliant in what they do, but no one can understand what they say."
Visual presentations have played an important part in business and
academia for decades, if not centuries. One of the most primitive
presentation technologies, the chalkboard, is still widely used. But in
recent years the spread of portable computers has greatly increased the
popularity of presentation programs.
Into the language: 'Did you send me the Powerpoint?'
Just as the word processing programs eliminated many of the headaches
of writing on a typewriter, presentation software makes it easy for
speakers to create slides featuring text or graphics to accompany their
talks. The programs replace the use of overhead projectors and acetate
transparencies, which take time to create and are more difficult to
revise. Most lecture halls and conference rooms now feature screens
that connect directly to portable computers, so speakers can easily
project their visual aids.
The secret to Powerpoint's success is that it comes free with
Microsoft's best-selling Office software package, which also features a
word processing program and an electronic spreadsheet. Other
presentation programs, like Freelance from I.B.M.'s Lotus division and
Corel Corporation's Presentations, also come bundled with other
software, but Office is by far the most successful, racking up $5.6
billion in sales last year.
Because most people do not buy Powerpoint on its own, it is difficult
to tell how many actual users there are. Microsoft says that its
surveys show that, compared with two years ago, twice as many people
who have Office are regular users of Powerpoint today, and that three
times as many Office users have at least tried the program. Anecdotal
evidence indicates an explosion in the use of Powerpoint.
For instance, the program is used for countless sales pitches every day
both inside and outside a wide variety of companies. It is de rigueur
for today's M.B.A. candidates.
The Dale Carnegie Institute, which imbues its students with the
philosophy of the man who wrote the seminal work "How to Win Friends
and Influence People," has a partnership with Microsoft and offers a
course in "high-impact presentations" at its 170 training centers in 70
countries. Microsoft has incorporated into Powerpoint many templates
based on the Carnegie programs and has even incorporated the Carnegie
course into the program's help feature.
Powerpoint is so popular that in many offices it has entered the
lexicon as a synonym for a presentation, as in "Did you send me the
The backlash against the program is understandable. Even before the
advent of the personal computer, there were those who argued that
speeches with visual aids stressed form over content. Executives at
International Business Machines Corporation, the model of a successful
corporation in the 1950's, 60's and 70's, were famous for their use of
"foils," or transparencies.
"People learned that the way to get ahead wasn't necessarily to have
good ideas," wrote Paul Carroll in "Big Blues," his 1993 study of
I.B.M.'s dramatic decline in the era of the personal computer. "That
took too long to become apparent. The best way to get ahead was to make
Critics make many of the same claims about Powerpoint today. "It gives
you a persuasive sheen of authenticity that can cover a complete lack
of honesty," said John Gage, the chief scientist at Sun Microsystems,
who is widely respected in the computer industry as a visionary.
Academic critics echo the arguments made by Max Weber and Marshall
McLuhan ("The medium is the message") that form has a critical impact
"Think of it as trying to be creative on a standardized form," Nass
said. "Any technology that organizes and standardizes tends to
Powerpoint may homogenize more than most. In the early 1990's Microsoft
realized that many of its customers were not using Powerpoint for a
very powerful reason: They were afraid. Steven Sinofsky, the Microsoft
vice president in charge of the Office suite, said that writer's block
was an issue for people using word processors and other programs but
the problem was worse with Powerpoint because of the great fear people
had of public speaking.
"What would happen was that people would start up Powerpoint and just
stare at it," he said.
Microsoft's answer was the "autocontent wizard," an automated feature
that guides users through a prepared presentation format based on what
they are trying to communicate. There are templates for "Recommending a
Strategy," "Selling a Product," "Reporting Progress" and "Communicating
Since 1994, when it was first introduced, the autocontent wizard in
Powerpoint has become increasingly sophisticated. About 15 percent of
users, Sinofsky said, now start their presentations with one of those
The latest version of Powerpoint, which will be released this month,
will feature an even more powerful wizard. The new version also
includes thousands of pieces of clip art that the program can suggest
to illustrate slides. There is even a built-in presentation checker
that will tell you whether your slides are too wordy, or that your
titles should be capitalized while bullet points should be lower case.
Many see the best antidote to the spread of Powerpoint in a graphic
medium that is expanding even faster than the use of presentation
software: the Web. Whereas Powerpoint presentations are static and
linear, the Web jumps around, linking information in millions of ways.
Gage of Sun tries to use the Web to illustrate his many public
speeches, though a live Internet connection is not as readily available
at lecterns these days as a cable that can connect a notebook computer
to a screen for a Powerpoint presentation.
"Powerpoint is just a step along the way because you can't click on a
Powerpoint presentation and get the details," said Daniel S. Bricklin,
who developed the first electronic spreadsheet for P.C.'s and more
recently a program called Trellix that puts Web-like links into
Bricklin said the Web, like any new medium, required new forms of
composition just as the headlines and opening paragraphs of newspaper
articles helped readers skim for the most information.
But he does not bemoan the popularity of presentation software. "It was
a lot worse," he said, "when people got up with their hands in their
pockets, twirling their keys, going, 'Um um um."'