How We Get The Point

Visual Display Quantitative InformationWay back in days of yore, people who worked in higher education communicated with each other without using email or PowerPoint. Students and younger colleagues find this difficult to imagine. Hard copy typed memoranda and reports were the medium of choice. When making presentations, words were key. Sometimes we talked to each other on telephone. A chalkboard or overhead projector provided an alternative for the adventurous. No one liked carbon paper, but we used it. And through it all, we somehow understood each other, made decisions, and survived.

Today, of course, we communicate digitally. Email for communication, even when situated a few feet from each other. The flood of emails is incessant. Our extraordinary email dependency is not necessarily to our benefit. Email regularly leads to misunderstanding and conflict. More times than I can count I have been asked to improve communication between colleagues who rely on email and habitually irritate each other. I do not know of a meaningful higher education decision made just through email (not that scheduling that next meeting isn’t vital . . . . ).

Many of our students have a different take on email. Candid undergraduates looking to undermine authority will assert that email is an old person’s communication. It is a fair complaint. Higher education can often be behind the times. Students’ preferences lean towards texting and social media, neither of which seem to be gaining any traction within the workplace.

We all come together with PowerPoint, our default presentation software. It spans generations and the language of “deck” and “slides” has inveigled its way into our lexicon. We assign PowerPoint in classes, we present to each other – and yet enthusiasm for the software is uncommon. Even rarer is a good PowerPoint presentation. Nevertheless, it is everywhere, a de facto expectation for public speaking and exposition.

My eye turned to PowerPoint after reading two books by Edward Tufte. Colleagues have raved to me Tufte on PowerPointabout Tufte for years. A charismatic speaker, Tufte is a retired academic polymath (statistics, computer science, and political science) who is shaping the field of data visualization. His books are beautiful designed and compelling reads – but there are much about studying as reading. He is very thoughtful about the interplay of texts and images. Tufte highlights better practice and is unsparing about poor communication.

Tufte’s critique of PowerPoint is devastating. It would be funny, too, if not for the awful consequences of bad communication. He reviewed the NASA PowerPoint presentation that obfuscated the dangers of falling foam in the Columbia disaster. Engineers knew of the problem and shared the warning signs. Unfortunately, they were difficult to discern on a slide with multiple bullet points and never rose to an appropriate level of analysis. This, Tufte argues, is one of the shortcomings of PowerPoint. Tufte argues that PowerPoint is more for the presenter than the audience, that reading slides aloud is incredibly boring, and that the architecture of PowerPoint – its bullet points, hierarchies and typefaces – works against clear explication.

The man has a point.

Our frequent return to PowerPoint in higher education stems from two factors: it is easy and it gives a business patina to our presentations. It is intuitive software that crudely imposes structure on even the most shambolic of arguments. A few quick clicks and we have a presentation that could pass as professional. I know – I have done it myself. Moreover, as we link PowerPoint with business, we assume that it is somehow more hardheaded than a different sort of presentation.

Looking critically at how PowerPoint shapes our communication is telling. More than a few of my presentations have missed their mark because of extended bullets. As I have learned over the years, my ideas and presentations do not gravitate toward extended outlines and hierarchies. Outlines are helpful when organizing large documents, but they leave much to be desired as a means of discussion and shared understanding.

The innovative solution that has greatly helped me and my colleagues with presentations and communication are large whiteboards and markers. We write, draw, erase, and re-write. It is effective and refreshingly old school.

David Potash

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