03/18/2015 06:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When PowerPoint Is Pointless

I was asked to give a talk about how I had found my voice as a new blogger at a relatively advanced age (OK, I was 68). To make the talk more interesting, someone suggested I use PowerPoint to accompany my presentation. While I had figured out how to do many things with my Mac, including make photo projects, books, movies with soundtracks and newsletters, and I had learned to use things like Wordpress and Constant Contact, I had never created a PowerPoint. But how hard could that be? My father figured it out for his art lectures when he was even older than me.


Cartoon by Marcia Liss

Well, let me tell you, it was not so easy. And creating it was the easiest part. Using it for my presentation was a real lesson in how technology doesn't always enhance communication. First, you have to understand my bias about PowerPoint presentations that simply project the same thing the speaker is saying onto a screen. I always come away from these thinking I didn't need to hear the lecture. I could have just read it. To me, these are super boring.

That led to my first mistake. I decided I needed visuals to make it interesting. And the slides should not be what I was planning to say. Rather, they should make my talk more interesting. So, because I believe a picture is worth 1,000 words, I turned a major segment of my talk into visual PowerPoint slides. Much better. This gave me a chance to showcase the cartoons my friend Marcia Liss had created to go with some of my blog posts.

Now I was on a roll. To make the other slides less boring, I added pictures and cut out most of the words. The slides would go up on the screen, and I would fill in the blanks with my talk. Cool.

I guess I should have stopped there, but I learned that other presenters also planned to add music to their Power Points. I thought of the perfect song, which I had downloaded on my computer legally for $1.29 because my granddaughters loved it. I knew how to add music to a slide show, so this would be easy. Not. The more my PowerPoint kept losing the song, the more I kept at it. Is there any way to get those hours back?

Finally, success (or so I thought), but I now had to send my PowerPoint to the event organizer and it wouldn't go through via email. It was too large because of the graphics. No problem -- I also have Dropbox. But somehow, every time I tried to send it became the night the music died. After getting many opinions from techies, I put the PowerPoint and music in a file together on a flash drive, and that seemed to work. Or at least it worked on my computer.

You are probably quite bored with my adventure, but hang in there for the moral of the story. There was no way to test this before my talk, and I learned just before my turn to speak that it might not work at all. Panic. One glass of wine later, I decided to just go out there and talk. Thankfully, the pictures were there, but my song ended up being played separately at the end of my presentation. I doubt anyone cared but me.

What was most upsetting was not that the Power Point didn't work as I had hoped. It was that I had made myself dependent on technology to deliver my message. Edward Tufte, long time critic of Power Point, describes most of these presentations as boring, disruptive, simplistic, trivializing and degrading "the quality and credibility of communication." He goes on to say: "PowerPoint is a competent slide manager and projector. But rather than supplementing a presentation, it has become a substitute for it. Such misuse ignores the most important rule of speaking: Respect your audience."

All of this is ironic because the theme for the presentations was "Finding My Voice." In reality, I should have just used mine, respected my audience's ability to listen to a seven-minute talk and saved myself a ton of stress.

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