PowerPoint Kills Brain Cells

by James R. Stoup Sep 07, 2005

Ultimately a computer is just a tool. Applications are tools as well. Printers, scanners, fax machines, all tools. They help us do something. Now, that something might be office work, it might be playing games or communicating with others but the fact remains that their purpose is to help us accomplish something. However computers can become a crutch. They can do our thinking for us if we let them, much to our detriment. How so, you ask? Why, just go into any middle school in America and ask a 7th grader to add something for you. What is the first thing that they do? Why, reach for a calculator of course. And a graphing calculator at that. I have witnessed this first hand many times and yet it never ceases to scare me.

I graduated high school in 2000 having taken every math course my school offered. I then went on to college, majored in Computer Engineering, minored in Applied Physics and took a math class every semester for three years. During my entire high school and collegiate career the only device I ever owned was a $12 scientific calculator I got in the 9th grade. So please believe me when I say it is quite possible to live without a graphing calculator or math processing software. Clearly then 7th graders should be able to work simple arithmetic out in their head. A TI89 graphing calculator is overkill to say the least. Hell, NASA sent a man to the moon with the slide rule!

And speaking of NASA we now arrive at the point of this article. Check out NASA & PowerPoint. This rather interesting story explains how very important information slipped by senior NASA managers because it was “so buried and condensed in the rigid PowerPoint format as to be useless.” The managers were looking at the information without actually thinking about it. They were lulled into a sense of security by the slick presentation in front of them and as a result failed to analyze and question the data properly. Just like the 7th graders reaching for their TI89s NASA engineers are using PowerPoint as a crutch. And, as we saw with the all too recent Columbia incident, failing to scrutinize important information can cause severe problems down the road.

And the problem doesn’t limit itself to NASA, oh no, not by a long shot. If you work in corporate America then you have already been inundated with a hail of powerpoint presentations. You have sat through meeting after meeting trying to stay awake as some presenter desperately attempts to impress upon you the meaning of his dozens of slides. And ultimately what do you walk away with? Very little knowledge usually. All the life has been drained out of your body due to a mind numbing 2 hour conference in which the bane of your existence became the words “and on this next slide you will see. . .”

But wait, it doesn’t stop there. Powerpoint has crept into the very heart of academia as well. Grade school students know all to well that it doesn’t matter what you say but how you say it that earns you the grade. A sad, if true, reality. And anyone who has attended a university of higher learning recently is also well acquainted with powerpoint. Nothing, and I mean nothing is worse than a professor who, for 75 minutes, gives a lecture one bullet point at a time. Teaching this way allows one to sit back, relax and let the powerpoint goodness wash over him leaving behind virtually no useful information and thus defeating the point of a lecture.

Now, don’t get me wrong powerpoint (or keynote for that matter) has its place. Used correctly they can be very helpful tools. It is when they become requirements, not additions, to presentations that I am disturbed. We are raising up a society that is doing its best not to think and that can only mean trouble in the long run.


  • I think the problem isn’t the software, but the lack of emphasis in education on properly presenting information. Schools are too focused on teaching the tool and not how the tool works. Knowing PowerPoint/Keynote is secondary to language and presentation skills; something educators themselves seem to miss the mark on.

    toadkicker had this to say on Sep 07, 2005 Posts: 10
  • I’ve been teaching English in China for nearly three years now.  Nothing leaves them more speechless than a nice PowerPoint.  Their speechless because they’re asleep. 
    As much as I like my tech, I think it’s about time that we went back to chart paper and overheads.

    This is frightening coming from a guy that’s 27.

    TheRich had this to say on Sep 07, 2005 Posts: 1
  • I agree with toadkicker. However, as a personal pet peeve, nothing is worse than a presenter reading, verbatim, everything on each slide as it goes by. Presentation skills are essential, its and art. Speaking of art, see Wired magazine September 2003, link here:


    From David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame. Powerpoint as art.

    tom had this to say on Sep 07, 2005 Posts: 4
  • Rocket Scientist:  “Y’know, if that software hadn’t made me fall asleep, I totally would have investigated that debris that hit the wing.”

    Investigator:  “Powerpoint?  But don’t you think that’s a bit of scapegoat…”

    Rocket Scientist:  “No, I’m pretty sure it was Microsoft that killed those astronauts.  There are, like, thousands of scientists working here, dude.  You think we just all just suddenly got stupid?  Something else must be to blame, cause it ain’t me.”

    Investigator:  “Not the beauracracy?  Or perhaps a disregard for the seriousness of…”

    Rocket Scientist:  “No, it was totally Microsoft’s fault.  Powerpoint made me do it.”

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Sep 07, 2005 Posts: 2220
  • The calculator bit sounds like Asimov’s short story “The Feeling of Power.”

    Interactivity is an important part of teaching. My father was a high school English teacher, and enjoyed the “special needs” classes as much as the top level classes. One semester he ended up with an Italian girl in special needs. She was not a slow learner or a “problem” student, but she did not know any English. My father picked up some children’s picture books in Italian and set out to teach the entire special needs class a foreign language. The Italian girl instantly had an entire roomful of friends who helped her learn English, while she taught them Italian. Everyone was stunned at open house to hear the “slow learners” conversing in Italian.

    Teaching is an art. Books, slides or even PowerPoint will never be to blame; they are only tools. It all depends on how they are used. Plutarch said it best: “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lighted.”

    Metryq had this to say on Sep 07, 2005 Posts: 7
  • Time to reply to some comments

    TheRich ~ I have noticed that everyone, not just students, responds better to presentations that don’t include powerpoint. Unless of course you want to put them to sleep.

    MacGlee ~ Summed up very nicely, thank you. I have noticed that many people seem to think that watching a powerpoint presentation somehow implies thinking as well. They are sadly mistaken.

    tom ~ Even worse than that is when they read the slide word for word and then don’t have a clicker or mouse of some type. As a result you are treated to “blah blah blah blah, next slide please”

    Beeb ~ Hear that whizzing sound near your head? Thats you missing the point.

    Metryq ~ Very awesome story and nice quote to boot.

    James R. Stoup had this to say on Sep 07, 2005 Posts: 122
  • Beeb ~ Hear that whizzing sound near your head? Thats you missing the point.

    You had a point?  I guess there’s a first time for everything.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Sep 07, 2005 Posts: 2220
  • There you go trying to be clever again . . .

    James R. Stoup had this to say on Sep 07, 2005 Posts: 122
  • I have seen both the good and the bad side of PowerPoint/slideshow-like presentations while attending a university.

    My art History professor did a great job of using PowerPoint effectively. Each slide contained a few images of statues, paintings, or buildings. Next to each image there were a few quick facts such as a the year the piece of was made and the author’s name. He never read from the presentation; he used PowerPoint as a tool to help facilitate learning.

    On the flipside, my chemistry class was one of the most abysmal experiences of my life. Before the semester began, every student purchased a packet of fill-in-the-blank notes. Every class period - and I mean every class period - the professor would put up an identical page and read through it while filling in the blanks. We were supposed to follow along and fill in our notes; most people just slept. I sat front center and I still was bored out of my mind.

    Slideshow presentations remind me of going to a planetarium. You look at a large, pretty display and listen to a voice that has no head. People learn best from other people and interacting with them, not from a computer.

    Brian Rose had this to say on Sep 07, 2005 Posts: 1
  • I’m waiting for Jame’s follow up article:  “Final Cut Pro blamed for Deuce Bigalow: European Gigalo.”

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Sep 07, 2005 Posts: 2220
  • James, I’m fully with you on this one. I’m a Luddite of sorts at heart - strange i know given my background. I’m against technology for technology’s sake.

    And the abuse of presentation software falls into that category.

    Keynote has potential do be worse than Powerpoint because it’s presentations are prettier, and pretty sells because pretty bluffs.

    Beeb’s upset by the PowerPoint references but you do point out this article is about all presentation software.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Sep 07, 2005 Posts: 1209
  • Beeb’s upset by the PowerPoint references but you do point out this article is about all presentation software.

    I’ll admit I was a bit glib, but my point is that it makes no sense to blame the software for bad presentations any more than it does to blame Final Cut Pro for bad movies.

    And I find it hard to believe that it’s just a coincidence that James is yet again bashing a Microsoft product.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Sep 07, 2005 Posts: 2220
  • are you implying Duece Bigelow was a bad movie? What are you some kind of movie snob? Next you’ll be telling me Gymkata wasn’t one of the greatest movies ever made!

    Chris Seibold had this to say on Sep 07, 2005 Posts: 354
  • Beeb,

    I do not blame Microsoft for boring powerpoint presentations. They are not responsible in the least. And if you read my article you will notice that at no point do I blame MS for this state of affairs. Nor am I bashing powerpoint to the exclusion of all others. I mention it because it, by far, is the most common example of the problem my article discusses. Keynote falls into the same category, as does slides, transparencies, models, hand puppets and anything else that serves as a substitute for using one’s brain. Powerpoint is the symptom of the disease not the disease itself.

    James R. Stoup had this to say on Sep 07, 2005 Posts: 122
  • Thanks a lot Chris, I had managed to go a solid 10 years without “Gymkata” soiling my brain and consuming otherwise useful thought-space.  Time to put that blockbuster.com subscription to work again…

    Anyway, I’ve found that in both business and academic circles Powerpoint can be used to make a very interesting presentation - in capable hands.  By itself it doesn’t seem like it’s ever enough, but a good presentation coupled with a good presenter can make a huge difference.  I agree with Beeb, it’s a tool - and unfortunately an overly abused one at that.  Just because one can make a powerpoint presentation doesn’t mean that one necessarily should.  However, I’ve seen enough great ones to at least acknowledge that the fault hardly belongs to the software.

    dickrichards2000 had this to say on Sep 08, 2005 Posts: 112
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