Tuesday, June 3, 2014

4 Ways We Respond Incorrectly When Confronted with a Critique of the Way We Use Power Point

By Steven S. Vrooman

I have not been able to stop thinking about the comments on this imgur-posted infographic since my student Bryan tweeted it to me:
I know, I know. Don't get sucked into the comments. That's like THE SECOND RULE OF THE INTERNET. The first rule has something to do with cats, I think.

But in this case, I found people's defenses of their own habits of visual aids very revealing. To be clear, I am not necessarily a huge fan of this infographic, and when it begins with flying bullets, it probably is going to rile people up. And yes, the Internet is sometimes a bad place to go for logic.

Still, I did some basic rhetorical analysis of the comments and came to a set of conclusions. There are plenty of comments of a more sensible nature than these, but I've conveniently ignored those for now. This is not science, but it's got to be more accurate than a Buzzfeed quiz, so here goes:

4 Ways We Respond Incorrectly When Confronted with a Critique of the Way We Use Power Point

1. The Mikey -- The Gut-Level "NO."

You don't need argument theory to tell you that you should support ideas with, say, evidence, maybe even some reasoning. But in many cases here, people simply feel like saying "No," is quite enough:

  • I don't find this very accurate.   
  • These tips are actually awful. Do not use these.
  • these seem like terrible suggestions.... i'm really hoping this is satirical...  
  • This is so so so wrong.  
  • This is very cringe-worthy  
  • useless  
  • I think this is one of those sarcastic "helpful" posters. Because of how wrong it is.  
  • Downvoting because none of this is accurate...  
  • This is fucking terrible. Urgh.  
  • Yeah...im going to down vote this because it is wrong...  
  • Yeah no this is not good.  
  • I'm going to ignore everything that was just said here.   
  • no  
This is what my son says when I ask him to try guacamole. Maybe we can get Mikey to try it. He hates everything:

There is a bit reddit-y communication culture here, especially with the "Yeah..." comments. And there is an imgur-reddit trope of justifying arguments with things like "Because...science."

But I think this can still tell us something. We are resolutely committed to seeing visual aids through our own personal blinders: whatever we like, that's what good, that's what works. But you are not making your slide decks for you. They are for your audience. They are not the same as you. 

2. The Venkman EngiBusiTary -- The "Trust Me, I'm a scientist," the "Trust Me, I'm an MBA," and the "Trust Me, I'm in the Military" Trick


All of these are basically the same thing, and all of them make me think of Dr. Venkman:
  • Sometimes you need charts. Maybe this is appropriate to a marketing scenario, but in an actual business environment, it's bullshit.
  • Most of this does not apply to sciences. I wish we didn't have to do bullet points, but you can't really avoid it!
  • As an A/V tech who has seen many good and bad presentations, don't use these tips
  • Yeah this is pretty much all wrong. in what kind of business or work presentation are you telling a story
  • I've been in business for years now, and I disagree with 90% of these statements.. Just sayin' :-)
  • I can tell you first hand the above is incorrect. - VP, Reporting
  • As a PhD student none of this is true :/
  • This is the exact opposite of what they taught me in business school
  • As an engineer, what the hell? What is this madness?
  • As a person who works in consulting and makes decks for a living, most of this is wrong.
  • This person has never seen a Navy Powerpoint presentation.
  • As an intel analyst in the army, I dont really agree with this
  • This is clearly not meant for any kind of scientific presentation. I would have been laughed out of class if gave a presentation like this.
  • yeah... this fails from the start. I got to study how to make presentations to clients in college, bullet points are your best friend.
  • As a military member who gives lots of presentations, the Colonel will throw you out of the room if you follow any of this.
Actual data on what happens when you get lazy with Power Point because you think you HAVE SOOOO MUUUUCH DATAAAAAAAAA is pretty easy to come by. Here are a few deadly examples of Power Points in the traditional, what I'm now going to call the "EngiBusiTary"style, in engineering/business/military contexts: the Columbia and the LHC and Kosovo.

So this is a little bit better than The Mikey. In this case it is: "I've only ever seen them like X, so X is right, especially because X sounds like it is deep and important and information-y." So folks who were trained in Power Point by teachers who used the free Power Points provided by their textbook companies (ever have one that said "Chapter One" on top?) are now surrounded by the same folks with the same training. In this wonderful groupthink environment, I get the sense of people wanting to throw down a physical version of their manly-sounding "slide decks" in a "go boom" moment like they are 11 and this is their best! Yu-Gi-Oh!! deck!!! EVER!!!!

Just because you have had a job as an engineer doesn't mean you know all things about communicating to engineers. You might, but this all really feels like Tracy Morgan doing Star Jones: "Now I am a lawyer..."

The Venkman is just The Mikey wrapped up in peacock feathers.

3. The Sam the Eagle Anti-Academic Argument

We hate eggheads, right? The anti-intellectual tradition in America is robust. It is so strong that simply suggesting that something is academic in origin feels like a death blow in the common sense of this perspective:
  • In the small world of Academic presentations. All of this is wrong.
  • Perfect tips for someone still in school. Not for work.
  • Sounds like something an arts major would put together.
  • Somewhere, in my favorites, are a bunch of academic tips I'll never read.
  • So have you ever given a presentation in a workplace environment, or....?
  • I am an academician with strong feelings about this! RAWR!
  • yea this is great advice if you're in college and giving an hour long presentation to a bored lecture hall

I can't help but think of Sam the Eagle intoning about the godlike world of BUSINESS when I read this.

What is hilarious about all of this is that the bullet-heavy Power Point style these folks are defending is the norm in education! Anyone who's graduated from school in the last 20 years has been inundated with bullet-y Power Points most of their school lives. 

Still no actual arguments about presentation audiences and what academics don't know about them. Instead, a masculinity joke about the limp professor types "RAWR"ing, with the added jab toward academics who get paid but don't seem to be in a "workplace environment," especially one which is entirely about presentations and audiences.

Sure, you may work in an environment where you are, as mentioned in #2, "throw[n] out of the room" for trying something aside from the approved company style, but isn't that also something we tell ourselves in our nervousness to justify our unwillingness to take a risk in front of the room, to communicate creativity or care of the audience? 

Instead we'll be the cool kid who'd just read the speech word-for-word with a sneer to communicate how much cooler he was than that crap, the cool kid who eventually decided that pantsing nerds didn't pay and managed to get Cs through a haze of frat parties and graduate college with a business degree. Then we'll critique the nerds when they dare tell us what to do in between bouts of playing fantasy football and browsing collegehumor.com on our next gen brushed metallic smartphones. See, I can revert to stereotypes, too. Not fair or helpful, is it?

4. The Alanis -- The Irony Pounce

Apparently, noticing irony makes things we don't like go away. It also gives you a number one hit in the 1990s:

To be fair to these commenters, this infographic was self-contradictory (like the irony that nothing in the song is actually ironic), but people liked to repeatedly point that out as if it meant something:

  • Dripping with irony, this 10 point slide breaks its own rules.
  • -1 Super contradictory. The audience should be able to understand the slide in seconds, but don't use bullet points?
  • Whoever made this, clearly doesnt know about the 30pt rule either...
  • Ironically, I saw the amount of text and useless graphics and skipped straight to the comments.

This is like the worry that Al Gore is a carbon polluter. He might be, but that doesn't invalidate global warming. This is ad hominem fallacy

Actually, the difficulties this infographic creator had in avoiding the 10 mistakes the graphic described should be even further testament to how problematic those mistakes are. 

Why Does This Matter?

I'm glad you asked. There's mounting evidence that the EngiBusiTary Power Point style is counter-productive. But the practitioners of that style are resistant to change. This blog post won't fix that. But the thing about public speaking that these folks aren't getting is that you've got to understand where your audience is and what they need in order to move them to someplace else. This post is a preliminary shot at understanding them so that we can generate a way forward.

to be continued....

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