PowerPoint and RocketScience II

In a previous note I objected to venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki’s requests (demands) for shallow and glib sales pitches in PowerPoint, but Professor Edward Tufte is also asking for sales pitches, just ones with more sober disguise. When you read “My other models for NASA are Feynman’s lectures on physics, and the A3 page (or 11 by 17 in) folded in half” the excellent quality of the writing helps slip by the emotive appeal to the form of Fenyman’s lectures and crisp clean sheets of paper as if something were implied about the quality of the content. Any University library computer science section can supply an apparently infinite number of illustrations of how perfectly good paper, verb predicate sentences, and beautifully typeset symbols can be employed to transmit vacuous nonsense.
What Tufte identifies as marketing values – “fast pace, misdirection, advocacy not analysis, slogan thinking, branding [and] exaggerated claims” – can easily be found in academic conferences. Computer science is not unique. Physicists joke about the rate of increase of the size of Physics Letters, calculating the date when it will be growing faster than the speed of light, and noting that no laws of physics will be violated since “no information is carried”.
Kawasaki is asking the desperate “entrepreneurs” to pitch their products and companies in 10 quick pictures. Could a presentation like that convey an idea of what HP or Visicalc or Apple or Adobe or Microsoft was trying to do? And all that simple stuff has already been done. Shallow pitches cannot give enough information to distinguish between a brilliant new idea for a storage system and some tired rehash of what everyone else did twenty years ago. But Tufte is also judging books by the illustrations. Feynman was a showman. I don’t believe that he would have refused PowerPoint, smoke machines, laser light shows, a samba band, or live dancers (especially not live dancers) in his lectures. The clarity, intellectual rigor, and honesty of the work (what Feynman described as bending over backwards to look at any possible weakness in the argument) has little to do with the medium or the venue.

Kawasaki and bullshitTufte are both very sharp and provide interesting observations on presentation syntax. But the semantics is the real deal. Presentations are collaborations between audience and presenter. If the audience is passive, lacks expertise, and doesn’t want to do the work required for critical analysis, the presenters will be drawn to the audience level. If the presenter making a less than honest pitch, a 40 page tightly written document carries with it no warranty. The failure of managers to understand the problems with the Columbia space shuttle would not have been overcome by banning PowerPoint. Professor Frankfurt points out that bullshit “is one of the most salient features of our culture”. Seeing through bullshit is tough work and it can’t be delegated to formatting.

(but the graphic back 0ct 2 2014)