Truth: Common Power Point mistakes never change

Judging by the film quality and clothing, this video with comedian Don McMillan was probably filmed at least a decade ago. Having spent all last week watching Power Point-enhanced (or, in some cases "enhanced") presentations, I can tell you that every, single, point (ha!) he makes is still relevant today.

Seriously. Scientists, I love you. But please get better Power Point skills.

(Thanks, Corinna Wu!)


  1. Oh, how true. And it’s not just scientists who are guilty of this. Often, I’m a wrangled to help with executive presentations where I work. While I’ve tried to steer them away from the “include EVERYTHING on a slide mentality,” there’s no budging them.

    The joy of squeezing 5 graphs onto one slide or importing an Excel spreadsheet (in 7 pt type no less) never gets old.

    If this video were better quality, I’d show it to a few of the worst offenders. Wouldn’t help, but I’d feel better.

  2. @ToMajorTom: I’m in complete agreement. Nearly nobody knows the difference between a presentation and a pile of garbled slides. The sad thing is that kids are taught (in jr high or high school) to create “PowerPoint Presentations” for various class reports.

    Here’s the deal: a presentation is what you are there to talk about. The slides are a handy support tool when you need a picture or a graph or maybe a few equations. NEVER read slides out loud. Corollary: NEVER write your talking points down on slides.
    Like Feynmann wrote after the Challenger Commission report came out, “…then they wrote down some unrelated sentences, each with a big dot in front of it called a ‘bullet.’ This is how NASA thinks it is providing information.” (paraphrased)

  3. Mr. McMillian is still delivering his PowerPoint-inspired comedy. He was one of the lead presenters (with some of that material) at the 2010 Department of Defense Cyber Crime Conference back on 26 January 10.

    It may seem like an odd venue, but many of his “example” slides should be considered a “crime” in their own right.

  4. Sadly, this will never change.
    I was helping a friend with a presentation, he goes to class and is like “OMG, everyone else is doing it this way” and redid his slides to have 400 words at size 6 on them.
    That’s because they’re stupid, dear…

  5. Criticisms of PowerPoint are pretty easy to come by. Examples of effective presentations are not. Can people post links to really effective presentations of difficult, technical results?

  6. I’ve been monkeying with Prezi ( It is way more interesting than Powerpoint but the potential for really bad presentations in the hands of communications dolts is far far greater.

  7. Some might not know that in the Army powerpoint is way over used in staff briefings. This quote I would always refer to when making slides for some inane briefing for a colonel or somthing.

    “While you were making your slides, we would be killing you.”
    – Russian Officer

    In a discussion between US and Russian officers serving in Bosnia as to who would have won if we had ever actually fought in Western Europe.
    From the 24 March 1997 edition of US News and World Report

  8. I’m currently taking a COMM101 class where we have done one PP presentation and I’m currently working on a second. We’ve been encouraged to use graphics and animation sparingly, but bullet points are actually required for any slide that makes multiple points. It appears my instructor is doing all the “don’ts” in order to teach us about the myriad features of PP – it’s entirely possible that student presentations have what would be considered bad form because the teachers simply want kids to know how much potential they have for creating something interesting, but not teaching restraint.

    Why I need a computer class when I’m studying to be an underwater welder, I don’t know (it’s a requirement of my degree). I’m sure those hide-in-the-coconut octopi will be quite interested in “how email works” (my current topic).

  9. I agreed with everything but the “courier new” suggestion, which might have just been a whimsical humorous note. Courier New is great for lots of things, but not Powerpoint! Make it in easy on the eyes of the audience–Times New Roman is preferable, if not ideal.

  10. Seems like its fun to make fun of scientists for having bad powerpoint skills, but in reality good scientists have good powerpoint skills. Being in science and having seen hundreds of slide presentations in seminars, scientific conferences, meetings with colleagues, etc. I think that for the most part, despite the limitations of the software most scientists will use powerpoint effectively. After all, that is a large part of what we do, this is one of the major ways in which we communicate our science to our peers. Sure, I’ve seen bad powerpoint presentations – with tiny font and too much text, cramming 800 graphs on one slide, bad color schemes, etc. But I attribute this to inexperience, and most of these come from students and postdocs who are still working on refining their presentation skills. I see this in presentations my students give in class all the time. Scientists spend a great deal of time tweaking and re-tweaking their slides in order to fine tune their presentations and communicate in the most effective way. From my perspective, PP was really designed with the business user in mind and therefore the pre-canned presentation formats are invariably lame. But nobody really uses these. Before powerpoint and digital projectors were the norm, if you wanted to put together a scientific presentation you would have to generate and layout all your slides on paper, send them to the photolab to be made and then keep them in a large archive of slides from which you would select the ones you needed for your talk. If you noticed an error, or wanted to update a graph or add new data at the last minute, forget about it. Now you can do all this in a jiffy. So while it is fun to make fun of Power Point, or other presentation software, and it is cool to cite Tufte, it really is one of the most useful tools that have enabled scientific communication in recent years.

    1. My ‘before PPT’ image is not a slide show, but an overhead projector, a stack of foils and a marker. The technology encouraged give and take and graphical explanation. I sure hope you’re right about presentations getting better, but it’s tough to argue info density w/ Tufte (sometimes you’re cool because you’re right).

      1. I think that you are right, in that overhead projectors were a good way to communicate interactively and would allow you to build gradually upon your explanation. PP I think enhances this ability. In a good PP presentation you can actually build the graph/diagram as you go along, greatly enhancing the possibilities for graphical explanation. Plus the ability to add movies and animations to aid the visual explanations I think is good. For teaching I use both slides and a chalkboard. For scientific presentations most people use exclusively powerpoint. I’m not arguing that there are no bad powerpoint presentations, and that lengthy bullet points are for the most part useless, but that if used correctly PP can be a very powerful tool (except when it crashes your computer, but that’s when you switch to keynote which is essentially the same thing but better).

    2. I thorougly agree. Powerpoint has allowed scientists to actually do science instead of tweaking overheads. You can imagine how many hours I spent in front of a printer/xerox machine redoing slides for a talk!

      I guess I was ‘raised right’: Tufte’s “Envisioning Information” and “The Visual Display of Quantitiative Information” were required reading by my advisor, whose mantra was ‘minimal ink, maximum information”. Granted, we were printing overheads on the laser printer and he was paying for the ink, but it’s served me well.

      My personal opinion is that Microsoft should remove the ability to do animations completely, just watching them makes me nauseous (unless it’s an rotating 3D representation of a molecule, which I’m fine with, because you’re presenting information!). I guess I”m just old school…give me a stack of overheads and a Vis-a-vis blue wet-erase pen and I can talk your ear off for 45 minutes, no problem.

  11. …This reminds me of the time Michael Dell went off on a tirade and sent out a rather nasty note to the entire company, banning the use of clipart for *any* reason in PPTs. Seems some bimbo in marketing got all cute with the clipart in a rather long presentation – to the tune of at least ten clipart images per page, half of which had *NOTHING* to do with the data! The very next day, tho, he attended a presentation of the new case designs, and the PPT has no pictures whatsoever, just brief descriptions of the cases and the colors they planned to use. Michael stood up and brought it to a complete halt with a tonguelashing of the guy giving the presentation for not including any images of the prototypes. The presenter shot back and quoted Michael’s prohibition *verbatim*, especially the part about anyone caught using clipart in Powerpoint files would be terminated. Michael left the meeting, sent a rescinding note regarding the clipart, and later had mid-level managers explain what “acceptable” limits were to clipart use.

    Note that the schmuck didn’t bother to apologize when he issued that rescind. That lack of tact was missed by nobody…

  12. I had a math teacher in High School who had most of her lectures and in-class problems burned onto transparant rolls for use on the overhead projector. She would work the problems in erasable felt tip, then roll to the next part of the discussion. This was the best use I have ever seen of an overhead projector. Great Job, Mrs. Hauser.

  13. Rare occurence – but this gives me a chance to actually be proud of the “Brand Police” in my company.

    The subsidiary-of-a-large-corporation that I am working for was rebranded into a well-known customer brand a few years ago. Part of the rebranding was an aggressive restyling of all our communication material – including day-long training classes about the thinking behind the brand and actual ‘campaigns’ to cleanse our shared drives of old material not up to standards.

    Lo and behold – 95% of presentations which I see going out of our company these days do not suffer from any of the points which this guy makes, whereas BEFORE this rebranding they probably suffered from all of them. Font? Only four flavours of “helvetica new” to choose from. Colours? Only four to choose from (grey/black/orange/white). New presentation or document? Templates of any and all kinds which allow you to be free in your expression while subtly forcing you to adhere to the rules of the brand to keep things understandable… Etc etc. I won’t bore you with the full pages-long guide of our ‘branding rules and style’, but I’m surprised to realise (in retrospect) that a solid plan for communication and style within your company can actually help those working with customers to shape their thoughts on slide in such a way that you prevent the most common errors.

  14. Maybe the city department I work in is weird, but when we have a meeting we actually sit down at a table, face each other, roll out paper maps, and maybe have a printout or two. A year or so ago we put together a Power Point presentation just to run in the background before public meetings officially start.

  15. Lots of people have opinions on these sorts of talks, and most of us know some of the worst things to do. But it’s worth remembering there is actual research on what does and doesn’t work. The total amount of material retained after a lecture is roughly constant ( ) so including irrelevant details hurt; but relevant pictures on slides help ( ). A good summary of some of the most robust points is here .

    In general, I’m skeptical of the idea that powerpoint for presentations is uniquely bad; I think most people that give bad powerpoint presentations would give bad presentations in any medium, because they’re writing things that help *them* as presenters, not things to help their audience gain understanding. I’ve watched one brilliant researcher in particular transition seamlessly from giving terrible chalkboard talks to terrible powerpoint presentations because ultimately, the researcher is more interested in coming across as smart than communicating knowledge to the audience.

  16. Nothing wrong with Times New Roman on a PowerPoint slide. I’d rather people left it on default than experimented with dangerous typefaces. Matisse can be a gateway font – before you know it, your co-workers are playing around with brush scripts, Marker Felt, Edwardian, or, God forbid, Comic Sans.

  17. People call me “PowerPoint Guru” and “PowerPoint Master”. I love this video, it’s so true, and its good people are willing to pay me to make powerpoints.

  18. Why specifically criticize scientists? Poor powerpoint skills transcend careers. I have seen many non-scientists who are far worse than most of the scientists I know. Most scientific presentations absolutely require visual aids and most people present these very effectively to augment what they are saying, not to duplicate what they are saying. Many (of course, not all) non-scientific presentations don’t require visual aids, and are far more likely to fall into the trap of including every single word the presenter says and too many bullet points. Or even worse, including words the presenter doesn’t say (because then the audience is either reading your slides or listening to you; very rarely do they do both).

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