Most people are familiar with the saying that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Some people know that the expression is associated with Lord Acton (1834 – 1902). But few people know anything about the contex or that the quotation isn’t entirely accurate.
The complete remark was “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Lord Acton, an English historian and politician, was a Catholic. He was, however, very aware of the way in which Popes had abused power. He wrote a letter to Mandell Creighton, an Archbishop of The Church of England, arguing that history was right to treat Popes harshly. He believed that they deserved it! The remark was part of the letter.
So much for Lord Acton! Edward Tufte is a visionary statistician, who gives seminars on how to display, represent, and communicate data. He wittily parodied Lord Acton’s famous remark in an article he wrote for Wired magazine in 2003 by saying, “Power corrupts. PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.”
Tufte deplores the way that PowerPoint encourages speakers to prioritize format over content. He dislikes the way children are encouraged to reduce their ideas to bullet points and sales pitches. He argues that a PowerPoint presentation is really no help to the audience but is a crutch for the presenter. Worse, “PowerPoint’s pushy style seeks to set up a speaker’s dominance over the audience. The speaker, after all, is making power points with bullets to followers. Could any metaphor be worse? Voicemail menu systems? Billboards? Television? Stalin?”
I must admit that, in the course of my career, the number of PowerPoint slides and the number of bullets I have seen have probably run into hundreds of thousands. Rarely have I laughed, been impressed, or even learned very much from a bullet. But I can’t help feeling that Tufte is blaming the tool rather than the presenter. Any technology creates the opportunity to create dreadful output. The advent of desktop publishing spawned thousands of appalling newsletters in the 1980s. The digital camera has been behind billions of ugly photographs. You only have to look at YouTube to see that video technology has let thousands of untalented videographers loose on an undeserving world. Microsoft Word is probably the underlying technology behind every boring book in the library!
Presentations definitely need to be redefined. That is clear. Let’s be honest. How often do you look forward to a presentation? How often do you walk away feeling enlightened, amused, or even simply better informed? I have resolved to make more use of pictures, replace my bullets with stories, offer my audiences the opportunity to participate, and try to fill my presentations with light-hearted humor to replace corporate cliches and platitudes. But this change won’t come by getting rid of PowerPoint. It will come with my resolve to improve my speaking skills.
Like all tools, PowerPoint can be well used or abused!
You may want to resolve to take an interesting risk. Try making a presentation with very few bullets. Use pictures instead. You will be surprised how much more engaged your audience will be. If you’re concerned that they need to walk away with certain details, note these down on a single sheet of paper. Give your audience ample time to read that sheet before you begin. Use PowerPoint to deliver your message, by all means, but do so through the use of cartoons, photographs, and informative charts. Your audiences will be grateful that you left the deadly bullets behind.
Dalberg-Acton, J. E. E. (1907). Historical essays and studies. J. N. Figgis & R. V. Laurence (Eds.). London, UK: Macmillan and Co., Limited.
Tufte, E. (September, 2003). PowerPoint is evil. Wired, 11 (9). Retrieved from http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/11.09/ppt2.html