How PowerPoint came to rule the world

I’ve always been a quiet fan of PowerPoint.

Yes, I know … PowerPoint is the software that people love to hate. They want to avoid ‘death by PowerPoint’ at all costs. They’d rather talk to people than refer to slides. The result is often a rambling monologue with no clear direction.

I love using PowerPoint. It helps me to structure my content, pace my presentations, and speak without notes. It gives me something to refer to and talk about. And, when I’m working with people from multiple language backgrounds, it’s a way of breaking down my flat Australian accent and providing listeners with key words.

I usually keep my PowerPoint simple – big words and key ideas, with no fancy decoration or movement. I like dark text and a pale background, with no animation. I usually adjust my slides to suit my speaking environment – so in an online class I might use text only and treat PowerPoint almost like a whiteboard, while in a conference presentation I might rely on big photographs and just a few key words.

Yes, I’m aware that plenty of well-known presenters and information designers believe PowerPoint should be avoided at all costs. But to suggest that it’s evil (as Edward Tufte does) or that it should be outlawed (as Jeff Bezos does) doesn’t work for me.

I know that PowerPoint presentations can be dull and incomprehensible. I’ve sat through plenty of them. But the problem is always the presenter, not the software. PowerPoint is just a tool, and blaming it for bad presentations is like blaming Word for terrible writing or blaming Excel when you’re broke.

So, imagine my delight when I was browsing in a bookshop a few weeks ago and I noticed a little hardback: Everything I Know About Life I Learned From PowerPoint by Russell Davies. A must read!

I wasn’t disappointed. This book is a joyful, witty, quirky, and positive discussion about how PowerPoint works and why. Its landscape format suits PowerPoint, and it’s full of examples.

It includes a detailed discussion about how to best use PowerPoint to support interesting presentations – including the 48 laws of PowerPoint (with law number 5 being that 48 items are way too many).

Davies explains why PowerPoint is particularly useful for those of us who need a bit of help as presenters. He suggests that charismatic, outgoing, articulate, powerful, tall, able-bodied white men may not need PowerPoint. Those people tend to get listened to, even when they’re poor public speakers. But the rest of us – those who aren’t brimming with the confidence of privilege and those who are under-represented in public life – can achieve a lot with a tool like PowerPoint. Davies describes it as training wheels for public speaking.

If you already love PowerPoint, you’ll get a lot out of this book. And if you’re asked to give a presentation – whether for a work meeting, a classroom setting, or a conference – you’ll find plenty of tips in this book – both about how to present and about how to use PowerPoint.

PowerPoint layout
This must be my favourite image from Davies’s book. How often do people bury the main point?

Everything I Know About Life I Learned from PowerPoint by Russell Davies (Profile Books, 2021). AU$29.99. It deserves a place under your Christmas tree.