Nefarious instrument of torture, the preferred weapon of corporate executives and their evil marketing minions. Easily recognizable from afar due to their cut-and-paste nature; sometimes you can even smell the buzzwords coming off the sheets.

PowerPoint was also yet another tool for Microsoft to eliminate competition, being part of the Microsoft Office "bundle." Microsoft acquired it by purchasing Forethought Inc. in 1987 (tregoweth: you were close!). Presentation software at the time was ruled by Harvard Presentation Graphics from Harvard Graphics; there was also Freelance Graphics from Lotus and Persuasion from Aldus.(*) Forethought had trouble getting venture capital because the market was so crowded, but they gave it a go anyway, and when Microsoft found itself wanting for a presentation package, they came knocking.

Like WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3, Harvard Presentation Graphics got wiped out as Microsoft Office took hold in businesses. By 1994, PowerPoint was the dominant presentation software in business. (Ironically, PowerPoint 1.0 was released only for the Macintosh!)

PowerPoint has expanded as computer technology has improved. Most notably, animation became available to PowerPoint in 1995, cemeting PowerPoint's place as the single most painful computer tool ever released.

All joking aside, PowerPoint slides can be an awful experience, allowing the presenter to sleepwalk through a tangle of cliches while supposedly "communicating" his/her ideas. There was a recent news article about a working mother who disciplines her kids by giving them a PowerPoint presentation about why they should behave. One of her sons even cries when she brings out the slides. Exactly how I feel sometimes. (This is real: http://www.citypaper.com/2001-03-28/cyber.html)

As a humble corporate worker bee, not a high-paid consultant, let me offer some subjective PowerPoint advice to the marketeers out there: Make your point at the beginning. Too many presentations save their thesis for the end, like it's a punch line. This is especially galling when the presentation is about a specific product. Why do you want me to be bored and nodding off when you finally get to your point? Tell me what the product is first, dammit!

Sources:
-- PowerPoint history in Presentations magazine: http://www.presentations.com/techno/soft/2000/02/19_f3_gro.html
-- ... and way too much personal experience.

* Thanks to ascorbic for the correction ... I'd originally flagged PageMaker as the Aldus presentation product.

Why I outlawed PowerPoint in my classes

Most university students are familiar with PowerPoint; however, they are not familiar with educating. When students work in groups, there is usually at least one member that is quite adept at assembling a PowerPoint presentation. Much time is spent finding the pictures that illustrate various points, inserting The Far Side comics (surely some dinosaur, fly at a bar, or cows in a field have an interesting comment to make that is at least tangentially related to the subject matter), choosing pretty backgrounds, and deciding upon nice transition effects. Once the PowerPoint presentation is assembled, here is what happens.

In the likely scenario of the group not having arrived early to class to prepare the presentation, students come, disk in hand, to face a notebook/projector system that is neither plugged in nor booted. Time is spent waiting for the computer to start and selecting the right combination of buttons so that the projector displays the images on the notebook screen. About 10% of presentations end here due to problems with the hardware or software.

Next, the room is darkened as the images are projected onto the wall, or if we are fortunate, an actual projection screen. Presenters stand in the back of the room so they do not get in the way of the tiny fonts that completely fill the screen. In a monotone voice, undistracted by the students who are being lulled to sleep, whole presentations are read from the projected images. Students with their heads down on their desks, awaken briefly to doodle on the 40 pages of PowerPoint handouts of The Far Side comics and redundant text. Eventually, the lights are turned back on, and the class blinks back into awareness. Was it just a dream? A wonderful sleepy time has been had by all.

Presentations do not have to be so bad. Since I outlawed PowerPoint and asked students to focus on content and teaching over .jpg files and transition effects, I have seen a tremendous improvement in the quality of student presentations. I ask students to think of the presentation as a learning experience for the class. What are they trying to teach? What will be the optimal method of getting their ideas across? How can they best ensure that the class will come away educationally enriched by their presentation? I figure that once they have developed increased skills in being able to interest and educate their audience, then they can return to PowerPoint -- and what a PowerPoint presentation it will be!

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