The case for PowerPoint in the White House

Ed Note: Boingboing's current guest blogger Steven Johnson is the author of six books, most recently The Invention Of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution and the Birth Of America, for which he is currently on book tour. He's also the co-founder of the hyperlocal community site

There's been a great deal of chatter about the technological sophistication of the Obama campaign and the transition efforts: the YouTube video addresses, the Citizen's Briefing Book that I posted about last week, even Obama's own Blackberry addiction. But as exciting as it is to see these new tools adopted by our President-elect, I'm actually rooting for Obama to integrate a twenty-year-old software application into his communication efforts.

I think Obama needs to use PowerPoint.

Okay, okay, hold your fire for just one second, please. I hate conventional PowerPoint just as much as the next guy. I might even hate it as much as Edward Tufte. I do not want to see Obama's soaring rhetoric tomorrow undermined by "next slide please" requests and stale bullet point sentence fragments. There's already a hilarious parody of what the "Yes we can" speech would have looked like as a PowerPoint deck:

And of course there's the timeless rendition of the Gettysburg Address, including the sublime slide 4:

Review of Key Objectives and Critical Success Factors

• What makes nation unique
- Conceived in Liberty
- Men are equal

• Shared vision
- New birth of freedom
- Gov't of/for/by the people

No one wants to see that happen. But I think there's a serious case to be made for Obama using Powerpoint (or even better, Keynote) as a supplement to his less formal addresses to the nation. Not for the bullet points, but for the Tufte-esque information design. Wasn't this the one of the lessons of An Inconvenient Truth--that great visual design could make a speech about a complex issue more powerful and more intelligible at the same time?

So many of the epic problems that Obama is going to be wrestling with over the next four years involve systems of great complexity and scale: the bailouts and stimulus programs, our national energy use, the immense expenditures involved in fighting two wars, the global scope of climate change. Tufte would be the first person to argue that complex systems like these are not easily explained using sentences and statistics, particularly when we're talking about such vast numbers. I can imagine a White House address on the stimulus package, or his long-term plan for energy independence, where instead of sitting at a desk reading from a teleprompter, he's actually walking us through the problem and his proposed solution with a backdrop of visually arresting and memorable slides. That would actually make for more stimulating television, and at the same time do a better job of communicating the issues. We've heard a lot from Obama about how the nation needs a CTO. But maybe we need a Chief Information Designer as well.


  1. OK, I’m all for using visuals to help communicate a point a-la “An Inconvenient Truth.” But can we stop using “PowerPoint” as a synonym for “multimedia presentation?” I’m a graphic designer and I shudder every time I’m forced to use that horrible, unintuitive, soul-sucking program.

  2. I’d like to see an address done naked except for paint, blood and fire. People have forgotten the basics.

  3. I’m with Brainspore on this.
    I suppose openoffice impress would be the most politically correct…?

    …God, I can’t believe I’m bickering about presentation software.

  4. Why does Obama need the media at all? Everything can be published online and the sycophants can download it like everyone else.

  5. I’m with Tak on this – paint, blood, fire, and if possible the still-beating heart of Dick Cheney.*

    (*just kidding – I know as well as the next guy that Cheney’s heart doesn’t beat).

  6. It seems like the media does this for him anyway. He speaks in lists a lot (“I have a 4 point plan for solving the economic slump. 1…”) and the media then translates those lists to guzzied-up PowerPoint presentations.

    It seems that drawing attention away from his diction would cause for a loss of impact without an appreciable gain.

  7. No no no, you got it all wrong! How is Obama going to keep up that slick campaign look with the clunky and out-dated Microsoft Powerpoint? He needs to be using Apple Keynote. Change can start with a switch to a computer that works!

  8. I can’t imagine many worse suggestions. Has anyone actually read Tufte?

    Giving out a written press release at the same time as a speech is just about perfect. Make sure both are coherent, even though the speech might contain much less detail than the release. The press will summarise for you.

  9. Why Powerpoint? The government should be mandating open standards over proprietary! ISO OpenDoc presentation .odp format please!!!

  10. “Wasn’t this the one of the lessons of An Inconvenient Truth–that great visual design could make a speech about a complex issue more powerful and more intelligible at the same time?”

    The lesson was that great visual design can sell even a lie. CO2 is not a pollutant. Not even close.

    More to the point: Tufte is right. PPT forces logic into corners it does not really want to go into. If you want to think precisely the way PPT engineers think, then PPT is for you. If you want to make communication clear, think for yourself. And learn how to think like your readers, audience, etc. Then give your audience the respect and dignity they deserve by thinking clearly and communicating simply.

  11. Hmm. What a difference it would make if people were regularly exposed to GOOD Powerpoints.

    Obama and his team clearly understand what makes a speech work. If they also understand what makes a Powerpoint work, maybe there’s hope.

  12. I’m concerned about equating the skill/ability to effectively read from a tele-prompter with giving a good presentation.

    Personally, I don’t want the President monkeying with PPT presentations, adjusting font size, bullet lists, animations, etc. He’s too busy, and the people around him are too busy for such nonsense. Sure, they could out-source (or in-source) the effort, but then they’d have to lock down their message that much earlier (or delay the speech/presentation) to accommodate the creation of a PPT deck…

    I don’t think this solves a real problem, it would just allow folks to ignore the words and read the slides – probably the opposite of what the incoming administration would want.

  13. Good PowerPoint is vastly diffferent from PowerPoint.

    Even better is a MultiMedia presentation – skip Keynote and go straight to iMovie & iDVD, if we’re going to suggest that stuff.

    I think Obama could most probably learn alot from Jobs’ presentations, too. If you can generate that much hype with incrementally updated computer hardware…. imagine the hysteria and positive press Obama could muster keynoting on a nation green energy framework, for instance.

    A new RDF for the White House… the one Bush was using started to clap out under the strain of all the BS.

  14. PowerPoint in the right hands and for the right reasons can be an excellent tool for communication.

    And when I read the items under “Review of Key Objectives and Critical Success Factors,” the first thing I thought of was…

    Government by haiku.

  15. We absolutely need a Chief Information Designer. This may mean we’ll use a lot less PowerPoint.

    And the single rule for anyone using presentation software: Write your talk first, using complete sentences, before you ever open the software. Once you’ve got it written, then and only then should you start making slides. You’ll find that your slides have a lot fewer words on them, and a lot more pictures, graphs, movies, that actually illustrate your point.

    This takes longer and is harder. But your talk will be much better.

    I’ll never forget the time I gave a PowerPoint in class where the slides had almost no words on them — just graphs from relevant scientific papers, which I explained verbally. Half the class had skipped, knowing that the presentations would be put online. (It was a situation where about 5 people a day gave a presentation.) A day later, I got an inbox full of angry emails demanding that I also post my notes for the talk, because I hadn’t outlined my entire talk in bullet points to spoonfeed it to all the people who had skipped. I capitulated and put up my notes, but I was sorely inclined to just let them sweat.

  16. I’ve wondered for a while now why the State of the Union address isn’t more like a shareholders’ meeting. Multimedia might be a step in the right direction, as long as there are actual figures on the slides as opposed to trite advertising slogans.

  17. I find it amazing that this discussion is still stuck in the “PowerPoint is evil” rut. Let’s get out of it. It doesn’t matter whether its PowerPoint, or Keynote or open source, having a visual explanation of complex concepts using information graphics helps people understand. Research into e-learning shows that adding graphical elements increases sutdents’s learning. So yes – I’d like to see Obama using visual slideware for technical speeches.

  18. Tufte feels that PowerPoint is the wrong tool for complex statistical information and pretty much everyon would agree with that.

    But, creating images as a mnemonic device so the audience remembers your message and is inspired is a good thing. Balancing that with clear data is an even better thing.

  19. Olivia – through my entire undergrad degree (which took 5 years because I was being complicated), I had exactly two prof who used projection effectively. Every other prof who did so made things worse.

    One was an art history course – he was using an actual slide projector, with photographic slides (much better resolution than digital projectors). The only thing he projected were artworks we were discussing; there would be about 4-6 slides per lecture. Occasionally he used overhead projectors, so he could draw right on top of a piece of art.

    The other was a comp sci prof. He also did not use Powerpoint-equivalent clicky-next-slide style presentation software. He had
    – a computer projector, which he used only to demonstrate doing things with a computer
    – a chalkboard, which he used to draw diagrams and such that were to stay up for the whole hour
    – an overhead projector, which he used to write notes or demonstrations, writing exactly simultaneously as he talked (speaking in complete sentences, writing the short form out simultaneously

    Your point is valid – visual presentation of complex data can help enormously. But the fact remains that the most effective way of doing that is often not a canned presentation that dictates the sequence of your talk in advance, whether that’s done with Powerpoint, movie-making software, or whatever else. And Powerpoint is really only useful for making canned-sequence presentations.

  20. Sorry for the double-post

    I disagree with you, Nancy Duarte. Using images as a mnemonic device or to inspire your audience diminishes the memorable, inspiring character of your own words and presence. It feels like a cop-out. It might improve things for a poor speaker, by improving his talk toward mere mediocrity.

    Can you imagine Martin Luther King speaking with images of little black and white kids playing together in peace, projected behind his head? It would have made his speech worse, by distracting from his own passion and strength.

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