Death by Powerpoint: Uniform Mediocrity and Boring Talks

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The age of uniform mediocrity

One response to the problem of inconsistent speakers is to use presentation graphics software to provide a presentation to illustrate the talk, and maybe give out handouts of the slides as an aide memoire. Unfortunately, this superficially attractive theory does not stand up in practice.

There is a truism in IT (Information Technology) that if you introduce computers into a situation which is well organised understood and structured, then a properly designed and implemented IT system will make things better. By contrast, a situation which may be characterised as disorganised will remain disorganised at best, and in many cases, the disorder will be multiplied by the introduction of IT.

Thus a disorganised and unclear talk is likely to be illustrated by slides that are cluttered and incomprehensible. A boring talk is usually accompanied by even more boring slides!

A computer with a presentation graphics package is a tool. Think about digging a hole in the road. Is a pneumatic drill a better tool than a pick and shovel? Well that depends. It’s a more powerful tool. But it all depends what you are going to do with it. If you are skilled in its use it will undoubtedly speed your task.

If you’re as clumsy as I am, and what ever you use is as likely to make a hole in your foot as the road, then the more powerful tool will simply do more damage. If you think this is a foolish example, then consider the following ways in which presentation graphics packages can add to the portfolio of sure fire ways to ruin your talk, all of which I have seen:

  • The speaker who has no concept of time management can now add the crime of producing far too many slides, thus ensuring that they run over time, and that anyone with a handout will know in advance that they don’t stand a chance of sticking to time.
  • The speaker who cannot structure a talk is unlikely to suddenly acquire the skill of structuring a slide, and will often produce spectacularly cluttered slides
  • The speaker who prizes uniformity above all and speaks in the same dull monotone will likely produce screen after screen of uniform bulleted lists which will only serve to reinforce the complete lack of variation in the whole presentation.

And I could go on, but you would quickly get bored with my bulleted list. When I sit in the audience of such talks, I am reminded of a song I learnt in childhood:

Little boxes on the hill side, little boxes made of ticky tacky.

Little boxes, little boxes, little boxes all the same.

There’s a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow one,

And they’re all made out of ticky tacky, and they all look just the same.

Malvina Reynolds

And I can’t help thinking of a version for today’s presenters:

Little lists made up of bullets, little lists made out of tittle tattle.

Lists of bullets, lists of bullets, lists of bullets all the same.

There’s a logo, and a title and a bullet and another one

And they’re all made out of tittle tattle, and they all look just the same!

With apologies to Malvina Reynolds

Just as enforcing attendance at my undergraduate lectures would not have improved communication and could have made matters worse by making the audience restive and the professor nervous, so giving people powerful tools without sorting out the underlying issues is a bad idea. It is the presentation equivalent of giving me a pneumatic drill!

Novice to expert

To improve the quality of talks, you must first sort out the fundamentals of presentation: check that you as the speaker have a grasp of how to plan a talk, structure a talk and deliver a talk. Having established the fundamentals, it is likely that you will be able to enhance your talk with the appropriate tools and avoid the equivalent of shooting (or drilling!) yourself in the foot.

If you think about other arenas, then first we learn the rules to guide us how to act competently. However, if we wish to progress beyond competence to expertise, then a key skill we need to learn is how to use judgement when to go beyond the rules.

Consider a model of how we move from being a novice to an expert, adapted upon work by first Dreyfus (1979), then refined by Benner (1984) and Storey, Howard and Gillies (2002). A novice operates under instruction, a proficient person performs according to rules and processes. The mark of an expert is someone who knows when to break rules to good effect.

The use of technology and the following of standard rules will raise novices to the level of proficiency and prevent some of the worst excesses. However, it will take you no further and proficiency in public speaking can quickly become rather tedious.

In the PowerPoint era, mindful of how often we fail to produce a talk of any aesthetic merit at all, we have emphasised consistency as the measure of quality. Rules are defined in an attempt to eliminate the worst excesses. In terms of the model above, such rules will help move people from novice to proficient performer.

Rules tend to be defined in the negative:

  • Don’t talk too quickly
  • Don’t have too many slides in your talk
  • Don’t wave your arms around

and so on.

They resemble the Ten Commandments, which the observant reader will notice are located in only the second book of the Bible. Round about ten books later, the Biblical writers start to grapple with a view of the world which seeks to move beyond simply prohibiting the negative. Although this thinking dates from about 1000BC, it is perhaps the first attempt to move seriously beyond a rigid systemised orthodoxy.

In the process of eliminating the worst excesses, talks have become much more uniform and individual creativity has been stifled. The novice may be raised to proficiency, but the chance to exhibit true expertise is lost. And whilst one proficient talk may be OK to listen to, a whole day of the merely proficient quickly degenerates into the merely boring.


1. Benner P (1984) From novice to expert: excellence and power in clinical nursing practice. Addison Wesley: California

2. Dreyfus S.E. & Dreyfus H.L A five-stage model of the mental activities involved in skill acquisition. Unpublished report supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. USAF, University of California: Berkeley. (1980)

3. Storey, L Howard J and Gillies AC (2002) Competency in health care, Radcliffe Publishing, Abingdon