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


Good Morning.

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 entertain questions.

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 graphs.

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 original ideas.

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 Powerpoint?"

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 good presentations."

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 on content.

"Think of it as trying to be creative on a standardized form," Nass said. "Any technology that organizes and standardizes tends to homogenize."

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 Bad News."

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 templates.

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 documents.

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."'