Reports of the “Death of PowerPoint” greatly exaggerated

An article in early April 2007 in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper suggests that a new research paper by Prof. John Sweller of the University of New South Wales pronounces the "death of the PowerPoint presentation". This report was then picked up by newspapers around the globe and reported as definitive proof that PowerPoint presentations should be eliminated. PowerPoint could easily use Mark Twain’s line, "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."

If you read what Prof. Sweller wrote in his paper and what he is quoted to have said by the reporter, you can see where these reports are a sensationalized view of the real situation. Let’s look first at what the paper says in detail, then what Prof. Sweller was quoted as saying.

When one reads the paper by Prof. Sweller, titled "Visualization and Instructional Design", one may be surprised to find that the words "PowerPoint", "presentation" and "slide" do not even exist in the body of the paper. The only example in the paper is of a printed mathematics problem. Can one apply the ideas in the paper to PowerPoint presentations? Certainly, but let’s not declare that the paper proves the death of the PowerPoint presentation when it doesn’t even mention it.

The paper is about how instructional design should be influenced by his cognitive load theory and other designs. The paper starts by reviewing some broadly agreed to principles of how humans understand information that is presented to them, including working memory, long-term memory, schemas and automation. The paper then moves on to describe five effects on instructional design that flow from cognitive load theory: The split-attention effect, The modality effect, The redundancy effect, The element interactivity effect and The imagination effect. For each effects he gives suggestions on how it should impact instructional design, but as mentioned before, does not even discuss presentations. The paper concludes with his references.

So the paper itself is a useful discussion of some ideas that can improve instructional design, but certainly no proof of the death of PowerPoint. What about Prof. Sweller’s comments to the reporter (assuming that the reporter is accurately quoting him)? He said, ""The use of the PowerPoint presentation has been a disaster. It should be ditched."

Now, let’s examine this statement more closely. He first says that the "use of the PowerPoint presentation has been a disaster". Given the number of poor presentations delivered every day, this is nothing new for most business people. The tool is used as a teleprompter most of the time and is boring to most audiences. The interesting quote is the second part where he seems to suggest a solution to the problem of poor usage, "It should be ditched" is what he says. Hold on a minute professor. If your paper explains five effects that improve instructional design, shouldn’t we be able to use your ideas to improve this poor usage. Isn’t that what your research is helping us do, improve our ability to help our audiences understand our message?

Indeed in further quotes in the article we find Prof. Sweller suggesting ways to improve the communication of ideas in a presentation, including using more visuals and speaking to what the visual means instead of simply reading the text of a slide. Both good ideas, but nothing that other experts haven’t said in the past. Unfortunately, most of the media has picked up on the four words in the first quote that are not supported by the paper Prof. Sweller wrote.

What should presenters be taking from Prof. Sweller’s paper? Here are some ideas for improving presentations using the effects in the paper:

  • Incorporate explanatory text in to diagrams so that the audience does not have to look at two different spots to figure out what the text and the diagram mean.
  • Use visuals instead of reams of text and speak to the visuals.
  • Don’t put redundant information on a slide – if a diagram is self-explanatory, don’t add unnecessary text.

In this case, as in other cases in the past, the media has chosen to seize on one small part of the information, a four word quote in this case, that is not supported by the evidence. Intelligent presenters will see through this sensationalization and look to the good ideas that Prof. Sweller includes in his paper.


Sources: - article in Sydney Morning Herald April 3, 2007 - Summary of Prof. Sweller’s paper