Daily Archives: September 20, 2009

Unsure? Tell a story . . .


I read my first criticism of PowerPoint  before I’d consciously seen many presentations. It probably flowed from Edward Tufte, author of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, whose essays “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint” and “PowerPoint is Evil” damn it as cognitive novacaine. Citing Tufte, the board that investigated the space shuttle Columbia disaster implicated the software, used during the crisis, for what was allegedly a flawed response to the ship’s danger. (See “PowerPoint, Killer App” by Ruth Marcus in The Washington Post.)

I can’t speak knowledgeably to that, but I do study storytelling, and recently I’ve noticed PowerPoint’s danger for any users—from businesspeople to educators to ministers—who want or need to tell stories. PowerPoint is fatal to stories.

The software is being misused any time the speaker’s primary goal is storytelling—it’s astonishingly effective at killing personal narratives and personal arguments. Among other things, it flattens heartfelt content and subtext, destroys narrative pacing and structure, and makes what should be personal scattered and bloodless. And everyone knows this. By now, a Pavlovian stupor settles upon the audience when the fancy slideshow begins.

Probably okay for certain presentations if used intelligently, PowerPoint reduces the user who would tell a story to a mere host who can only point witlessly to the elephant sucking the oxygen from the room. At best, such a speaker appears to be selling something, not telling a story, the most potent way our species has discovered to receive meaning.

If you need to tell a story, that human thing, stand up there and try without a technological overlay. Anything is better than using PowerPoint thoughtlessly, even flailing your arms and bursting into tears. I say unto you as I say unto myself: When in doubt about what you should do, when you aren’t sure if your audience really needs bullet-point factoids, when you need to make an introduction and fear waffling on and babbling, just tell a story.


Filed under audience, evolutionary psychology, narrative