Is Powerpoint evil?

Is Powerpoint evil?

How do you react when a revered thought-leader in your field declares your specialty "witless, smarmy and incoherent"? That's what the Yale statistician emeritus and leading lecturer on visual communication Edward Tufte has to say about PowerPoint presentations. His much-publicized article in Wired, "PowerPoint Is Evil" (September 2003) and his March 2003 monograph: The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint were the opening salvos in a multi-year exchange that has resounded from blogs to boardrooms and into the columns of the New York Times.

 Tufte has been a tremendous influence on my thinking and practice, simplifying the style and increasing the rigor with which I represent data. This orientation is also valuable in helping clients de-bunk opposition graphics. Here, an opposing expert represents the financial health of a company as good, while a plot of free cash flow against plan reveals a deepening crisis. PowerPoint's compatibility with Excel allows almost instant creation of data-driven graphs - a big advance in the ease of preserving and maintaining accuracy.

Tufte has been a tremendous influence on my thinking and practice, simplifying the style and increasing the rigor with which I represent data. This orientation is also valuable in helping clients de-bunk opposition graphics. Here, an opposing expert represents the financial health of a company as good, while a plot of free cash flow against plan reveals a deepening crisis. PowerPoint's compatibility with Excel allows almost instant creation of data-driven graphs - a big advance in the ease of preserving and maintaining accuracy.

Tufte's critique is that PowerPoint forces presenter and audience into a "stacked in time" strait-jacket stultifying creative thought and encouraging over-simplification. He suggests that the "artificial hierarchies" of a PowerPoint slide helped lead NASA engineers to conclude that the Columbia could be brought down safely despite damage to wing tiles. He humorously analogizes PowerPoint's domination of the audience with Stalin's statue in Red Square asking for the "next slide."

I have to admit that it gave me pause when I read about Tufte's position. Having worked almost exclusively in PowerPoint for the past 15 years, my first thought was, "I sure hope he's wrong about this." In the time since, I've gotten comfortable with the idea that the gray eminence is all wet on this one.

He may have been so traumatized by endless, bullet-pointed academic conferences (who could blame him?), or, as I've heard, by seeing someone use PowerPoint to give a talk on him and his work, that he developed a passionate hatred for the software - shooting the medium and allowing the messenger to go free. Just as early automobiles frightened horses, new technologies almost always have annoying side effects, which tend to go away as society learns to use them - so I suggest is the case with PowerPoint.

Power to the People

PowerPoint use has exploded in recent years, with an estimated half-billion copies out there producing, according to Tufte, "trillions of slides." Hardly the tool of Stalinist repression, since anyone with a computer can now put together a respectable-looking presentation. This hasn't been lost on trial lawyers, who can now rough-up demonstrative exhibits on their own computers or collaborate with a designer to make more polished presentations - many of our clients do both.

   
  
 
  
    
  
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    In the second trial of Rod Blagojevich, the Government presented a PowerPoint presentation in summation.  In contrast to jurors in the first trial (who harshly critiqued my graphics), these jurors said “We wished we had that PowerPoint to bring back with us because it was so clearly well organized and help[ed] us organize our thoughts.”  What was the difference?  Simple words, pictures and evidence that proved the narrative.

In the second trial of Rod Blagojevich, the Government presented a PowerPoint presentation in summation.  In contrast to jurors in the first trial (who harshly critiqued my graphics), these jurors said “We wished we had that PowerPoint to bring back with us because it was so clearly well organized and help[ed] us organize our thoughts.”  What was the difference?  Simple words, pictures and evidence that proved the narrative.

PowerPoint is a presentation environment - it allows you to get in there and work on your images in the same medium they'll be presented in. So, you can edit and refine your work right up to the last second before hitting the show button. More and more lawyers are hitting that button for themselves at trial, perfectly comfortable running their presentations from their laptops.
Tad Simons writes in "Does PowerPoint Make You Stupid?" for Presentations magazine, "To anyone familiar with PowerPoint, the most striking thing about Tufte's essay is how naive he seems to be about the extent of PowerPoint's true capabilities, which he either purposely ignores or is genuinely ignorant of." Mr. Tufte can be forgiven - even grizzled graphics veterans we interview today are surprised to learn what PowerPoint can do.

"You did that in PowerPoint?"

Long seen as a "puppy" program, PowerPoint has been ignored by graphic designers in favor of the Adobe applications, Illustrator and Photoshop. Trials have contributed to demand for better quality presentation graphics, but with a brutal need for speed. The recent XP generation improvements to PowerPoint came along at the right time with the capability to deliver professional production values along with superior ease of use.

PowerPoint can now handle illustration with precision and subtlety, and 2D animation with smooth motion, overlaps and transparencies. Tufte appears to share in the common misconception that PowerPoint users are constrained to ugly standard backgrounds and Autocontent Wizard bullet points - nothing could be further from the truth.

No one knows precisely what a liposome looks like, so we looked at many different sources and collaborated with an expert witness to develop this illustration. One important feature of the liposome is the "swept and hydrated area," a watery zone wiggling with polymers, that acts as a barrier to antibodies that would otherwise attach and mark it for elimination. Eluding the immune system helps more of the drug contained within the liposome reach target tissue.

 PowerPoint gives you a great platform to illustrate and animate stylized scenes. You can leave out detail for some elements, and include lavish detail in others. This creates a powerful focus on the parts of the picture you want to emphasize.

PowerPoint gives you a great platform to illustrate and animate stylized scenes. You can leave out detail for some elements, and include lavish detail in others. This creates a powerful focus on the parts of the picture you want to emphasize.

The Bottom Line: Jurors Respond Better

However much consultants and our clients love PowerPoint, jurors are the ultimate customer, and they like it just fine. For years we worried that computers in the courtroom made the wrong statement, or that good graphics would be seen as too slick. After many mock trial deliberations and real trial results from West Virginia to Mississippi, I'm convinced that we shouldn't worry about those things anymore, anywhere.

I have come to rely on PowerPoint as the primary medium for graphics presentation at trial, with the use of a few special static boards (usually real big) for detailed timelines with interactive magnetics or markers.

This strategy is supported by exploratory research recently done by Dr. Chad Lackey at DOAR, a Lynbrook, New York trial consulting firm. He tested jurors who had seen a presentation without graphics, jurors who had seen a presentation with static boards, and jurors who had seen a PowerPoint presentation and found that the PowerPoint groups learned and retained information best and the no-graphics group did worst. The exception was on issues related to the order of events in the case, where the board group did a bit better, likely because a timeline board tends to stay up in front of the jury longer. Based on these results, you could almost argue that PowerPoint makes your jury smarter!

It's Not the Medium, It's the Content

Of course PowerPoint doesn't make anyone smarter - if it did, I'd be Einstein by now. I do think, though, that it's a remarkably useful tool for planning, producing and presenting information to juries. Trial experience, research experience and the overwhelming collective practice of trial lawyers bear that out.

If you design a good presentation, faithfully present the data, produce quality illustration and animation, you can't be better prepared to communicate with your audience. I'm almost sure that if Mr. Tufte tried it, he'd love it - PowerPoint would be perfect for his seminars.

Powerpoint is a trademark of Microsoft Corporation.

What can really good graphics do for you?

What can really good graphics do for you?

 You can’t take a picture that shows the action of organic polymers in solution, or reactions that break them down. But you can make a sketch, then illustrate and animate it—this one is done completely in powerpoint.

You can’t take a picture that shows the action of organic polymers in solution, or reactions that break them down. But you can make a sketch, then illustrate and animate it—this one is done completely in powerpoint.

They say that "to a hammer, everything looks like a nail." As an artist and graphic designer, I can relate to that - my first response to any complicated problem is to draw a picture of it. Not a bad start, but graphics don't give you the answer to everything, any more than graphics can get up on their legs and win your case for you. There are important benefits to including graphics in the preparation and presentation of your case, though, and I examine some of the main ones here.

1. Show things that you can't videotape or take a picture of

Many times clients have asked me to put together a computer model of a factory or manufacturing process, and my response is always to ask if we can get in and take pictures and videotape. A few hours with a digital camera can capture most facilities and many processes better than costly modeling and animation. There are instances, however, when you just can't take a picture of damaged property or events concealed inside closed vessels or deep in a rock formation. Diagrams and illustration can be invaluable to explain how these complicated things work.

Whether they are biologic events or electronic circuits, the process of developing diagrams or illustrations to explain them is a collaboration among the artist, you and your experts to clarify while retaining accuracy. That collaboration begins with establishing what you're going to say - what the testimony will be, and what evidence you'll rely on - the focus should be on the essential few points you need to prove.

I sometimes hear clients say, "this is a financial case, there's nothing to make a picture of" and I respectfully beg to differ. Financial cases can be a rich source of imagery - and often involve complex abstract ideas (like commodity futures contracts or the time value of money) that are tough to explain without diagrams and illustrations.

Even in a financial or contract case, I like to use photographs to give authentic context for graphic illustrations, so that as much of the content as possible is collected, not created.

2. Present evidence in its most powerful context

A key challenge for the designer of trial exhibits is to "get out of the way" of the evidence - to stop creating things and channel that energy toward presenting the evidence powerfully. I confess that it has taken me years to learn this and I still struggle with it. Success is a clear and memorable presentation that proves something important, and ironically, a failed effort could be more beautiful.

 In this case, an opposing expert points to a dramatic change in crude oil prices as evidence of a “structural change” that would trigger a renegotiation under the disputed MFN supply contract.

In this case, an opposing expert points to a dramatic change in crude oil prices as evidence of a “structural change” that would trigger a renegotiation under the disputed MFN supply contract.

Sitting through many a mock trial and seeing the outcomes of many real ones, it's clear to me that jurors have a fine appreciation for the beauty of quantitative proof. Charts and graphs can be the best evidence, especially when the other side uses them to attempt to mislead. Exposing that lie creates a great moment in court, so it's well worth putting some creative effort into "capturing the flag."

Another way a consultant can help is by acting as fresh eyes on the documents and deposition testimony. After months or years' exposure, passages that you think are powerful might be too subtle for Joe Sixpack over here, and evidence you think is too obvious may make the whole thing click for me - most importantly, keep only the strongest, make the call-outs great big and put them in logical order.

A timeline is a terrible idea for one or two cases out of a hundred, and a great idea for the rest. I really like to link chronological events with effects, like the rising price of soy bean futures, increasing debt load or lives saved, etc., to create a centerpiece exhibit that you keep coming back to. Timelines can be used interactively on screen, but it's hard to beat a good one on a big foam board.

3. Help in some unexpected ways

The process of creating a trial presentation is more inquiry than execution. The act of putting pen to paper, or image on screen, forces discipline and attention to detail. The process directly confronts case folklore, and reveals strengths and weaknesses you literally wouldn't see without the effort. When you graph the data, it tells its story.

 r x h describes a cylinder, but it can’t begin to describe the object shown in the illustration. Mock juries I’ve observed have overwhelmingly approved of detailed computer illustration, appreciating the quality of the product and rejecting suggestions that it might be “too slick.”

r x h describes a cylinder, but it can’t begin to describe the object shown in the illustration. Mock juries I’ve observed have overwhelmingly approved of detailed computer illustration, appreciating the quality of the product and rejecting suggestions that it might be “too slick.”

Also, drawing a picture of something requires a greater understanding of the subject - whether it's a bowl of fruit or a factory fire -than just talking about it. Once you have visualized your case, you will understand it better and more thoroughly than you could have any other way.

So how do I know what really good graphics are?

I tend to geek-out on this subject. I've been giving it particular thought in recent months, and have developed some criteria you can apply that are, if not exactly objective, at least not purely subjective. We're going to get into those in some detail in our next article. Meanwhile, I would value your feedback on this one. Please forward your comments to dwinter@chicagowinter.com

Thank you,
Dan Winter

Powerpoint is a trademark of Microsoft Corporation.