This one’s off-topic in the sense that it’s non-political. Consider it a celebration of something that was created due to free markets and the division of labor, a la Jeffrey Tucker.
I’d like to take a moment to stick up for a much maligned piece of software. A piece of software that undoubtedly provides great benefit to the vast majority of those reading this, yet gets absolutely no credit or praise. In fact, it is almost universally maligned and spoken of as if it is has a negative effect on society at large. I am speaking of Microsoft PowerPoint.
Ask the average person about PowerPoint and they will immediately recall boring presentations, uninteresting speakers, and ineffective training. They might even go as far as to use phrases such as “death by PowerPoint” (a favorite in the military). About half of Wikipedia’s entry on PowerPoint consists of such criticism (including blaming it for the space shuttle Columbia disaster!), with little praise to be found.
While we have all undoubtedly experienced many boring and uninspiring PowerPoint presentations, we must keep in mind that PowerPoint is not some sort of self-aware entity. PowerPoint is a tool, like a hammer, or a gun. It is a tool used by men for a specific purpose. When used properly, it can be used to great effect. It can dramatically increase the quality of a presentation or lecture, both in terms of entertainment value and holding the interest of the audience, and in terms of conveying critical information. However, unlike a hammer or a gun, I maintain that PowerPoint absolutely does not ever result in making things worse. With a hammer, you can accidentally squash your finger. With a gun, you can accidentally shoot yourself, or someone you did not intend to shoot. Using PowerPoint poorly may result in a boring presentation, but likely not any more boring than the presentation would have been if PowerPoint wasn’t used at all.
This is the key point to keep in mind. PowerPoint was not created as a substitute for a compelling presentation by a dynamic speaker about an interesting topic. Such a best-case scenario has little use for such a simple tool. Rather, PowerPoint was created as a substitute for a shy or boring speaker standing at a lectern and looking down, reading from a series of note cards, while the audience struggles to hear, process, and retain the information. Those who criticize boring PowerPoint presentations rarely seem to consider whether the session would have been better if there was no PowerPoint at all. I suggest that it would not.
PowerPoint exists as an aide, both to the speaker, and to the audience. It allows the speaker to have a ready reference while maintaining engagement with the audience. It allows the audience to follow along, and process information visually as well as through sound. It gives the audience ample time to take notes, and easily identifies the key points of the topic.
It is also a very well designed and easy to use piece of software. Templates are provided so that even first-time users can construct a presentation that looks sharp and is clear, organized, and easy to understand in a manner of minutes. No special training or advanced technical manuals are required.
It is true that great public speakers have little use for PowerPoint, but we should not compare any boring presentations we have seen in our lives to those given by great public speakers. Rather, we should compare them to how effective the presentation would have been if given by a poor speaker with no visual aids whatsoever. That is the proper comparison.
So the next time you hear someone complaining about having to sit through a boring PowerPoint presentation, ask them if they think the presentation would be more interesting if there was no PowerPoint at all. The simple fact of the matter is that PowerPoint is a brilliant and imminently useful piece of software that greatly assists in the ability of the average person to effectively communicate ideas to a large audience. It provides tremendous benefits to all of us.