March 2011

Volume 26 Number 03

Don't Get Me Started - Missing the (Power) Point

By David Platt | March 2011

image: David PlattI just sat through the gazzilionth bad PowerPoint presentation of my working life. Has anyone ever seen a good PPT presentation? I can’t remember one. They’re rarer than Siberian tigers.

This speaker had apparently just discovered slide transition effects, and used a different one for every slide. Bounces. Dissolves. Wipe downs. A clockwise wheel with eight spokes. It reminded of the late ’80s when we first got laser printers. We switched fonts every few words just because we could, so our documents resembled kidnap ransom notes.

Worse, this presenter did nothing but read out his PPT bullets one by one. I pay $2,000 to get groped by the TSA, crammed into a metal tube with crying infants and flung across many time zones, eat bad hotel food and sleep on lumpy mattresses to hear some art major read a list of bullet points? I could’ve stayed home, slept in my own Tempur-Pedic bed, played with my kids, and read the darn bullet points myself.

A speaker should have to earn a license before presenting a PPT talk. Until you enter the authorization key from a certified instructor, PPT will refuse to run on any computer connected to a projector. You’d learn to stroll through the audience as they gather for your talk, greeting as many as you could—addressing them by the names on their badges, shaking hands if you could. You’d ask where they’re from, what they’re doing in their jobs, what they came here to learn from you. You’d start getting onto their wavelength, and getting them onto yours.

And during the talk, you’d get out from behind the podium and use a remote clicker to switch slides. You’d make eye contact with individuals, placing a monitor facing you at the front of the audience so you wouldn’t have to turn your head away from them to see the screen that’s being projected. If the venue wouldn’t give you one, you could have a colleague hold up a laptop with its screen facing you. If a colleague wouldn’t do it, you could bribe an attendee. If none of those work, then you’d be alone in the world, my friend, and have problems way bigger than PPT. But you shouldn’t inflict your problems on your audience.

Likewise, anyone who composed a PPT deck would have to earn a new, different certification before PPT would project it. The current PPT certification teaches you how to do things, but it doesn’t teach you what to do and what not to, or where or when or why. It teaches you how to start the chain saw, but not which end to hold.

For example, it teaches you how to do color gradients, but doesn’t tell you when they improve the audience’s experience and when they degrade it. The slides in the Microsoft November 2010 Azure training kit all contain a horizontal color gradient, dark blue on the left fading to light blue on the right (see Figure 1). “That’s our branding,” said one Microsoft employee. “It looks nice. What’s wrong with it?”

image: The Background Isn’t Easy on the Eyes

Figure 1 The Background Isn’t Easy on the Eyes

Here’s what’s wrong: The constantly changing contrast between the white text and the background color requires constant fine muscle adjustment as your eye scans the line. That quickly causes pain in your eye muscles, your body saying, “Hey, knock it off.” Try it now: Concentrate on the text in the figure. You’ll feel the first twinges of genuine pain in under a minute. And class attendees look at these slides for three days. Ouch.

This branding says, “We’re Microsoft. We know we make your head hurt, and we do it anyway. Remember us.” I doubt that was the intention, but it is the result.

Both the bad presenter and the bad slide builder had been carefully trained in the use of a software package. They had not been trained in communication with human beings, the ultimate goal of their efforts, which the software package was supposed to enhance. We need to start teaching them what they’re really doing.

David S. Platt teaches Programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at