Against PowerPoint—the need for deeper clarity of thinking…

PowerPoint Ban Logo

Raising questions about technology can get you in trouble.  In a culture where smart phones are frequently consulted before getting out of bed in the morning, all sorts of technologies are simply taken for granted.  Raising questions about raising kids in a household with television can get you labeled as the Amish-sort—or even worse, a Luddite, a hater of technology.  Giving a presentation without using PowerPoint is unthinkable in most business, governmental, and academic settings.  And it could get you a visit to the corner office.


But when the use of technology bothers the core of corporate culture, questions are raised and changes are made.  For example, founder and CEO Jeff Bezos recently banned PowerPoint from  In a 2012 interview with Charlie Rose, Bezos explained, “When you have to write your ideas out in complete sentences and complete paragraphs, it forces a deeper clarity of thinking.”


Instead of PowerPoint presentations at Amazon, company policy now requires six-page narrative memos.  These are read in short “study halls” at the start of meetings.  As one commentator said, “[T]he company that is devoted to helping customers do things quick-quick-quick—‘1-click ordering,’ same-day delivery, the instant download—creates an environment where employees take the time to write and think slowly.”


Political philosopher and college professor Peter Lawler applauds the Amazon ban.


Bezos has returned us to the obvious thought that the point of sentences and paragraphs and such is to facilitate clear and critical thinking.  He noticed that too many of his employees were having so much fun designing PowerPoint slides that they were forgetting to think. …


Where PowerPoint goes, intellectual enjoyment disappears. From my perspective as a teacher, what I mostly see is that PowerPoint makes both teachers and students lazy, as “coherent narratives” are transformed into bullet points. The era of PowerPoint is also the era of the buzzword or buzz-phrase, such as “disruptive innovation.” It is also, of course, the era of management-speak, “branding,” and such.


On a lighter note, Lawler adds another reason for approving the Amazon ban—Bezos is a humane person who has an “aversion to cruelty.”


Think about how much time sophisticated Americans have spent enduring the torture of literally billions and billions of PowerPoint presentations over the last couple of decades.


The Bezos ban on PowerPoint is not the first challenge to this ubiquitous technology (roughly a billion copies are on computers around the world).  In a Business Week article, “Death to PowerPoint,” Bob Parks argues that no field of endeavor can withstand PowerPoint’s “facility for reducing complexity and nuance to bullet points and big ideas to tacky clip art.”


And the enormous amount of time spent generating PowerPoint charts, graphs and bullet points has made it the butt of jokes in the military.  But that is only one of their concerns. 


Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations during his successful offensive in northern Iraq in 2005, later likened PowerPoint to an internal threat.  “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control. … Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”


Back to Bezos and his desire for deeper clarity of thinking.  Here’s how Fortune magazine summarizes the Bezos ban, after naming him Fortune “2012 Businessperson of the Year.”


Jeff Bezos likes to read. That’s a dog-bites-man revelation if ever there was one, considering that Bezos is the cerebral founder and chief executive of a $100 billion empire built on books. More revealing is that the Amazon CEO’s fondness for the written word drives one of his primary, and peculiar, tools for managing his company:  Meetings of his “S-team” of senior executives begin with participants quietly absorbing the written word. Specifically, before any discussion begins, members of the team—including Bezos—consume six-page printed memos in total silence for as long as 30 minutes. (Yes, the e-ink purveyor prefers paper. Ironic, no?) They scribble notes in the margins while the authors of the memos wait for Bezos and his minions to finish reading.


Amazon executives call these documents “narratives,” and even Bezos realizes that for the uninitiated—and fans of the PowerPoint presentation—the process is a bit odd. “For new employees, it’s a strange initial experience,” he tells Fortune. “They’re just not accustomed to sitting silently in a room and doing study hall with a bunch of executives.” Bezos says the act of communal reading guarantees the group’s undivided attention. Writing a memo is an even more important skill to master. “Full sentences are harder to write,” he says. “They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”



Articles referenced above:


Fortune/CNN/Money:Amazon’s Jeff Bezos: The ‘ultimate disrupter’” by Adam Lashinsky 

Business Week:  Death to PowerPoint” by Bob Parks

Charlie Rose interviewed Jeff Bezos on November 15, 2012, just after Bezos had been named Fortune Magazine’s “2012 Businessperson of the Year.”

Philanthropy Daily: “Jeff Bezos’ PowerPoint Prohibition” by Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill  Jeff Bezos and the End of PowerPoint” by Peter Augustine Lawler

The New York Times:  “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint” (a 2010 article that looked at problems created by the use of PowerPoint in the military)



Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email

3 Responses to “Against PowerPoint—the need for deeper clarity of thinking…”

  1. Thank you for sharing. Other preachers and I are using presentation software less frequently and when we do we are trying to use it to convey an idea with graphics (Pictures) and with single words. The idea is to give one or two words and allow those words to be representative of the point you are discussing in the sermon. The reduces the number of slides to a few. Steve Jobs (Apple) was masterful with this method.

  2. Thanks, Scott! Delighted to hear that you and other preachers/pastors are rethinking PowerPoint. You may also want to consider the impact technology has in shifting us from an oral and text based culture to one that is visual and image based. In The New Atlantis, Christine Rosen has an insightful article, “The Image Culture,” that touches on PowerPoint toward the end. Here’s part of her conclusion, which has obvious implications for all of us who want to communicate the riches and subtitles contained in THE Word.

    “[The image culture] is here to stay, and likely to grow more powerful as time goes on, making all of us virtual flâneurs strolling down boulevards filled with digital images and moving pictures. We will, of course, be enormously entertained by these images, and many of them will tell us stories in new and exciting ways. At the same time, however, we will have lost something profound: the ability to marshal words to describe the ambiguities of life and the sources of our ideas; the possibility of conveying to others, with the subtlety, precision, and poetry of the written word, why particular events or people affect us as they do; and the capacity, through language, to distill the deeper meaning of common experience. We will become a society of a million pictures without much memory, a society that looks forward every second to an immediate replication of what it has just done, but one that does not sustain the difficult labor of transmitting culture from one generation to the next.”

    Or, from another angle: It is said that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Perhaps that is true in some cases. But certainly not in others. Could we put the Psalm 23 or the Beatitudes into a picture?

  3. I draw pictures for a living, you might say. As a software interaction designer, I am often creating pictures (many times black and white simplistic ones) that allow our customers to see how their software will work or should work. However, behind the pictures is a narrative or at least a flowchart.

    I can’t draw a logical and coherent set of screens unless they are ordered by and their content determined by a story. That story answers the question “who is doing what?” with the software.

    We use PPT and other presentation tools to tell the story but not without lots of accompanying text. That text may be in another document or in annotations on each slide that point to and describe what the whole screen does and what each part of it does.

    Without the words, the pictures are meaningless. In fact, if the pictures start getting hard to conceive or are not making sense together, it’s time to put away the drawing tools and write out the story again until a solution becomes clear.