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'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.
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.
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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.