It’s not Macs vs. PCs. It’s people vs. powerpoints

A meeting of an academic board. Ten people. Eight Macs. One PC. The PC is projecting PowerPoint bullet lists about academic excellence, technological innovation, and social transformation. The presenter reads to the audience what is displayed on the screen, line by line (are these his speaker notes?). The audience is trying to follow but can’t help dozing or checking their emails. Looks familiar?

I rarely advocate Macs over PCs. There is no longer a need. Most of my academic colleagues have chosen Macs anyway: they are faster, last longer, and don’t get viruses. What I am sometimes crusading against are things like taking notes in Microsoft Word or preparing presentations (or worse - scientific figures) in PowerPoint. Nevertheless, my arguments are often dismissed as ‘pro-Apple’.

I hear that I am undermining the budget because Macs are more expensive. This is not true, at least on a full-cost, life-time basis. I am further accused of undermining academic collaboration by introducing incompatibility. This is even less true. I constantly collaborate with colleagues who use different platforms. Compatibility is such a non-issue that I often don’t even know which computer my co-authors use. Compatibility concerns may exist between different software rather than different platforms. You may experience glitches transfering documents from Scrivener to Pages or from Google Docs to Word. But these issues are fully solvable and even non-existent for software which has both PC and Mac versions (Papers, Scrivener, etc.). Finally, I hear that there is no IT support for Macs. While this is true, providing IT support is an administrative choice. All in all, Macs don’t need as much support as PCs (according to some evidence perhaps 3–4 times less) because they break down less often. Maybe precisely because of this reason, some IT departments feel threatened and rally against Macs, including by refusing to provide support.

Irrespective of these arguments, my main reason for choosing and enjoying a Mac is not to have a great computer, which is becoming increasingly common, but rather joining a community of people who are keen to make their work fast, effective and enjoyable. But not everyone who gets a Mac is ready or willing to make this step. As Macs become widespread, not everyone with a Mac is interested to make a transition away from PowerPoint, Microsoft Word, hierarchical folders, and other olds habits. There are many people with Macs who are more comfortable with standardized fit-for-all tools from the PC era. Attachment to PowerPoint’s bulleted lists illustrates this better than anything else.

Have you ever received a high-priority reminder “to send your powerpoints (sic!) in advance of the conference”? Recently I had a remarkable interaction following such an email. I wrote back to the organizers to say that I do not use PowerPoint and instead would run my talk from Keynote on a Mac. They angrily responded that my slides are needed in advance to ensure that  ‘everything runs smoothly’ (read: there are no gaps between ‘powerpoints’). Eventually I managed to arrange my presentation anyway, but another e-mail caught up with me immediately after the conference. The organizers liked my presentation and requested that I still send them my slides. At this point I must clarify that my slides don’t even contain that many words: they are mostly pictures in various Keynote animations (builds). Technically it’s not difficult to convert such slides to a pdf document or a QuickTime movie. However, I wondered what’s the point of passing those movies or documents to the audience: they don’t make much sense if one does not hear the presentation. I offerred to send my script, which contains more or less the exact text of my talk (once again, the text does not make much sense without the slides but at least one can read it). This was not good enough. I was asked for the ‘proper’ slides ‘to ensure consistency’.

That’s where the problem is. ‘Consistency’ has become a synonym for consistent mediocrity of ‘powerpoints’: the slides covered with text and bullet points. Les Posen, a psychologist and the author of Presentation Magic recently hosted on MPU Episode 111 explained this point very well. He said that the presentations are becoming a de-personalized knowledge transfer tool, supposed to be used without seeing or listening to the presenter. Such presentations can be sent around so that even other people can speak to the same ‘powerpoints’. People become unnecessary. ‘Powerpoints’ become omnipresent and omnipotent. This is where the frontline of the battle is, not whether to choose Mac or PC but whether to respect your topic and your audience so highly as not to leave them to the mercy of powerpoints.

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About Aleh Cherp

Aleh Cherp is a professor at Central European University and Lund University. He also coordinates MESPOM, a Masters course operated by six Universities.
This entry was posted in Collaboration, Presentations, Workflows and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to It’s not Macs vs. PCs. It’s people vs. powerpoints

  1. Csaba Pusztai says:

    As for the presentation story, that sounds familiar. Because I anticipate that they would be asking for PowerPoint slides, I usually don’t even bother explaining that I don’t have PowerPoint. I usually save my presentations right away as PDF (one slide per page) to be projected as PDF full-screen. Now, that seems to puzzle people (organizers) even more! ;) I don’t understand the great fuss most people have about PowerPoint presentations. Ok, it was fascinating to move from transparencies to PPT about 15-20 years ago. But then people forgot that planning and designing your talk is probably more important than the fancy (?) looks of bullet points bouncing in and whatnot. I have seen so many B.A.D. PowerPoint presentations that I decided to break symmetry by being a quasi-luddite advocating going back to the roots of simple presentations. Quite recently I saw a great mathematician deliver a fascinating presentation on knot theory….using old fashioned overhead transparencies. Also, I have seen a world-class business school consciously endorsing green chalk boards in their classrooms rather than slideshows.

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  2. I often get the same reception when trying to explain the advantages of plain text to my colleagues. They now make jokes like, I’ll soon try to convince them to start writing in stone. And yes, most of them do use their macs like you describe. It’s a bit sad, but hey everyone is entitled to do things their own way, even if one thinks it could be done better. The downside comes when collaborating with them. At times they would go, is there something else than powerpoint?

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    • Aleh Cherp says:

      I have recently sat at a meeting with students. The colleague who organized the meeting had a Mac. I observed how he opened it, booted MS Word and prepared to take notes. At the end of the meeting he had about 7 words written in that document (I bet the file size was already 5k). Then I could only imagine how he would give command Save, drill through his folder hierarchy, make a difficult decision where to place this file and how to name it. Most likely he will never find this file again. Perhaps a smarter decision would be just to discard these notes. Which is also a pity. But of course something like NValt would be considered a stone edge tool because it can’t adjust page margins.

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      • Csaba Pusztai says:

        There is a way to nicely combine stone-age and non-stone-age technology. In my former college they introduced a new electronic filing system for all correspondence, including emails. To comply, administrative staff need to print out all official e-mail, add a unique document identifier, and then scan the hardcopy and place it in the e-filing system. Because I am a person with good intentions and a concern for the natural environment, in one meeting I suggested — to save paper and improve Knowledge Management procedures — that administrative staff should rather hold/place the computer monitor over the scanner and scan the email directly from the screen. I am sure it there were people who went “Hmmm…that’s a good idea.” ;)

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      • Aleh Cherp says:

        Csaba, that’s a bad* idea! Because then you can’t add your unique document identifier! On the other hand maybe you can stick it onto your computer screen … Or stamp your screen?

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  3. I’m curious as to what the tenth person used….

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  4. tomraftery says:

    I face this issue often – my keynote decks are generally just a heading and an image, no text.

    If I have explanatory text, I put it in the speaker notes section. I don’t refer to the speaker notes while I’m speaking, it would be too distracting for me, but I make sure that when I export a PDF copy of the slides for the conference organisers, I tick the box to ensure the PDF includes the speaker notes.

    I also upload all my slides (in PDF with speaker notes to SlideShare, and I point people to those – as an example, see http://www.slideshare.net/TomRaftery/open-source-cloud-platforms-cloudstack-collab).

    That seems to solve the issue for most folks.

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  5. Bob H says:

    You still seem to be bringing some of the argument back to Microsoft and the technology rather than addressing the fact that some people are just poor designers/authors of their presentations (in total not just the slides). For presentations we need to remember that the AV element was once called a “visual aid” and to paraphrase a former colleague who was asked about videoing his lectures: ‘my lectures are an interactive experience, if you were not there then you cannot get that experience through a video’. A presentation should always attempt to be an interactive experience, it is the first thing that you are taught as a lecturer because you must confirm learning. Just presenting a series of facts on a series of slides can be done through a text book, it doesn’t need a presenter.

    The reason most conference organisers don’t want people to use their own laptops? Because enough people (irrespective of the product) struggle to operate their own computer, especially under the pressured situation. Add to that the time taken to disconnect the last person and connect the next person, it can never go smoothly. Just because you are able to prepare yourself doesn’t mean everyone else can and if something can go wrong it will go wrong.

    Most colleagues of mine use note books for note taking and then type those notes up to word and email those word documents, I find it antiquated because only half the people who receive the notes don’t read them. I prefer instead to take notes on Evernote (tablet or laptop) and then edit them into an executive email directly.

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    • Csaba Pusztai says:

      I don’t agree. Presentations should NOT always be an interactive experience. It depends on the purpose of the “presenter” and the context. Imagine for instance that you are to deliver a keynote speech to 250 people. There is probably no way you can make it interactive (and “confirm learning”). In this particular case, you will go with one-to-many communication, I am sure. Of course, you will want to engage people.

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      • Bob H says:

        I have had many occasions to present to large rooms and you can measure engagement, it is never going to be as strong as measuring in a more intimate setting but there are techniques for confirming that you are getting your point across to the majority.

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      • Csaba Pusztai says:

        Could you give an example?

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    • Aleh Cherp says:

      Bob, all good points. Of course one can make great slides in Power Point and awful slides in Keynote. It’s just that the ‘institutionalized PowerPoint’ strongly encourages laziness and eventually mediocrity. I noticed it in my teaching when I started to ‘recycle’ my old PowerPoint slides. (Now I am in danger of starting the same recycling with Keynote – so watch out!). Of course one needs to connect the equipment and run a small delay and a risk of failure (I dramatically failed on a couple of occasions because my Mac just did not connect to a projector). One should always always test the equipment in advance and become friends with the ‘tech guy/girl’ in the room. Yet in my view the small ‘connection delay’ is worth the eventual gains in audience’s experience. Imagine 50 people listening for 20 min to a talk. That’s 1000 person*minutes. Even a 1% increase in quality would compensate for a 2-min delay 5-times over. I suspect the difference in quality between a lovingly prepared Keynote and an average-quality PowerPoint bullet list may be 2-3 times (that’s how much more people will absorb). So it’s totally worth to fiddle with an adaptor.

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  6. I have done several University and paid for conference talks in Asia recently. What I do is provide handouts in PDF and ask for an internet connection as I need to use live demos and videos. The conference organisers are happy with that and so were the Unis. Most of what I do, I term “Case study experience” and you cannot do a set path when people are experiencing it. In terms of powerpoint, I demo’d that my Apple could move from one to another version of powerpoint more easily than the PC could with different versions that needed slightly different windows or updates. Out here people turn up to conferences with iPads or tablets not notebooks. Notebooks seem on the way out. Everyone including the professors use Macs, but with Office on them. iPads seem to be what everyone is switching to here although there are lot of other tablets around to. Sticks with presys on seems to be the way with commercial or association presentations using PDF. I will not supply anything that is editable and even put protection on my PDFs. Its my IPR and no way would I give it to an organiser. If it is to be public I put it on slideshare. The organisers and associations I work with don’t have a problem with that. They just want to print handouts normally. I agree that a bad presentation is a bad presentation and has nothing to do with the media. Poor powerpoint has suffered from bad presenters syndrome more than others, but I remember before when overheads could be just as bad!

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  7. Alex Tanner says:

    Hi,

    I am responding as a VMware employee. VMware recently purchased a company called SlideRocket to broaden the scope of our End Use Compute portfolio and part of the rationale behind that purchase was in line with what is being discussed here – user productivity, functional software, but also how to leverage the best mediums to disseminate information.

    For all the pros and cons of PowerPoint or its Mac equivalent, its use as a presentation medium, source of information dissemination etc. is not likely to go away anytime soon. This is in contrast to say capabilities like many of the popular word processing packages. One of the things that was identified that lead to the purchase of SlideRocket was an awareness of how users are creating and disseminating information in an online, multi-device, multi audience, multi-context environment.

    Documents previously typed out laboriously in Word (or equivalent) are now more often than not dynamic, collaborative discourses posted in a forum such as this, shared on email, tweeted or posted in internal or external social / enterprise netwokring forums.

    I can’t remember the last time I opened a Word Processor document. But in my role in pre-sales I use presentation tools daily, to varying sized audience, in online webcasts, small group sessions or to post information for wider consumption. This is where something like SlideRocket was the natural evolution of the presentation software genre as it is primarily web based, has a multi-platform client, allows a far richer use of media such as voice tracks), can be locked down or opened up in terms of content access by user and dissemination method and provides helpful tracking information around who is viewing the presentation online and which slides were deemed effective (either through comments or traffic metrics).

    I think for me the things that comes out of the learned discussion above is that the need to convey ideas, information in a visual and stimulating way has not disappeared – just that some people are not fully exploiting the range of tools that now exist.

    Part of that problem I feel also stems from the misnomer that Word equals Word Processing software or that PowerPoint equal presentation software. As with Keynote, the technology has caught up to the principal behind PowerPoint and moved on to new manifestations and we should look to encourage people hosting presentations and providing information on the back of those presentations to look at these new technologies and offerings that embody autonomous web distribution, collaboration, multi-device access, rich media integration and usage tracking, whether it be a capability like SlideRocket or any of the other online presentation offerings

    Many thanks

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    • Csaba Pusztai says:

      “just that some people are not fully exploiting the range of tools that now exist.”

      …and sometimes over-exploiting those tools to a degree that counts as abuse.

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  8. Pingback: Why the quality of academic presentations is declining? | Academic workflows on Mac

  9. Bravo Prof. Cherp! I groan when I hear conference speakers and teachers who assume that supplying their Powerpoint document is almost the equivalent of hearing them speak. “That’s only true,” I think to myself, “if your remarks were little more than reading those Powerpoint slides.”

    There’s also something about me that wants more context and content. A set of headings and bullet points tells me almost nothing. It’s like asking for a steak and being served its bones.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of Hospital Gowns and Other Embarrassments

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  10. braincutlery says:

    There’s an old adage that ‘stick drivers can drive automatics, but automatic drivers can’t drive stick’. I wonder if the same is true of presentations.

    If you can’t deliver a good presentation with a mediocre tool, what use is a better tool? The presenter is the issue, not the tool.

    As a mac lover I would love to be able to use Keynote in my corporate world, but instead I choose to create simple, effective presentations in PowerPoint (and I never read any bullets!). I encourage my team and my colleagues to do the same.

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  11. Pingback: Managing audience attention: Keynote animations | Academic workflows on Mac

  12. Pingback: Bookmarks for May 15th through May 17th | dekay.org

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