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November 30, 2005

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"Use lots of bullet points"

And, use lots of pointy bullets

I'm waiting for the flowery-bullets to come out when they release their plan for immigration reform. Daisy bullet. Rose bullet. Star bullet. Happy presentation!

agreed, & I enjoyed class I took with tufte (though as an aside his own witticisms, stretched to fill a course, took on a bullet-point quality of their own) but I wonder... which came first, the talking point or the bullet point? I would tend to think of the powerpoint style as the invasion of the 6 o'clock news format into the boardroom & classroom -- so saying that Bush is the powerpoint president may have the causality reversed -- but the parallels are as you note unmistakeable.

when the columbia accident happened - during the build up to war - I remember thinking of the line from Hamlet..."there is a certain providence in the fall of a sparrow." when I first heard the "powerpoint-thinking" critique applied to the Columbia disaster, again I made the link... this is the first time I've seen someone make the link. Kudos!

I can't recommend Tufte's books highly enough. For anyone that prepares reports or presents information they are a great help. They also are great fun who want to customize their homemade bullshit detectors. And good charts and graphs are just plain cool.

Sadly this chart of the ever diminishing army of Napoleon during the 1812 Russian campaign could be updated for the number of healthy Fallujah residents or the number of women who can walk freely on the streets of Iraq.
http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/posters

joe3, thanks for the link, academic in me has to nitpick however: the beauty of the Napoleon graphic is how elegantly and intuitively it combines multidimensional data -- time (1-dimensional), place (2-dimensional), size of the army (1-dimensional) for a 4-D graphic that anyone can pick up and immediately read without consulting a legend or decoder ring.

I see where you're going with the Fallujah & Iraqi women references but those would not really fit the same format.

I consulteded for a company where people got upset that I wasn't doing a powerpoint presentation for one of my meetings. They just couldn't understand what I was saying without bullet points...

That Tufte poster is hilarious! I know I'm going to have to read him now. Thanks for hipping me.

There's nothing necessarilly wrong with talking points, or very distilled speech about complicated things - it's how you get to them which matters. Powerpoint actually acts as a cognitive template. It's preposterously arbitrary. I would bet that 80% of all PPTs are bullshit. At least 80% of the ones I've seen were. PPT (in its worst, most common form) is the extremely bad idea of attempting to make words themselves 'visual'. It's bad thinking/language AND bad visuals.


my particular take on this is that the bush speech was not intended to communicate connected ideas (an argument).

increasingly i have come to believe that the bush presdidential communication style is moving this country away from arguments and into mere manipulation of symbols.

in this instance i view the iraq-victory-speech not as a coherent argument but as an entity. you might think of it as a beautifully wrapped and bowed christmas present in a box. but the box proves empty - or full of confetti. to paraphrase mccluhan, the speech is the message. within wide limits, its content is irrelevant.

how can this be?

because of the nature of our american political discourse these days. in the wlw (web log world) i read, there is substantial criticism of russert, woodward, miller, o'reilly, broder, cohen, the mincing, prancing school marms of the nytimes, etc, etc., but these miss the point. most of these indivudals , especially the tv commentators and print-tv hairpeices are, to borrow from digby, talk show hosts and guests. they have no need and no obligation to describe in detail, to analyze, or to criticize the president's speech. and they do not. they are doing what thier business requires them to do; what their producers and editors demand.

nor will any other potential source of criticism (academics, political opponents, war opponents,) have enough access to the masses of voters to make critical arguments heard.

the lack of acuity in the public description of and criticism of bush's activities, including his speech yesterday, has left this nation a blind cyclops. it is a miracle that we are not in more trouble in iraq, elsewhere in the world, and in the u.s. than we are.

but back to the beautifully wrapped gift box.

in the communications environment i have described, there is not need to have a detailed plan for iraq - going in or coming out of there. there is no need to make a coherent argument. in a sense , doing so would be a waste of time. nowadays it is sufficient to simply remind voters of a speech (one does not even have to do this "in person" on tv; you can do it thru ads) and then assert one's own evalution of that speech. ("i lead this nation into iraq and i have led it out of iraq. we have done our job. democracy and freedom rule in iraq." all this while hightailing it out of the country or continuing with a disaster)

so next spring, in time for the congressional races of 2006 bush can reference his "victory" speech. he can, and if past is prologue, he certainly will, make any claims he chooses for the speech and for whatever "progress" has been made in iraq.

the current environment of public political discourse would be an embarassemtn to jefferson, madison, monroe, and hamilton. they took their arguments seriously. they took seriously the oblgation of a leader to inform and educate and convince thru competent argumentation.

fortuntely for george bush, given he has not talent in this direction, the current climate does not require connected discourse. there is no penalty for not doing so.

the wlw provides a glimmer of hope for a way around this problem of inarticulate political discourse, brave-new-world use of language, but it will have to be developed to reach many more poeople than currently. in the meantime this economically and miltarily powerful nation is a blind cyclops thrashing about - a danger to itself and its people and to the rest of the world.

I've had to do many a dog and pony show with PowerPoint, and I found that the use of bullet points actually washes the logic out. The format makes it difficult to make an argument in which you pull facts together, do some evaluation, and come to conclusions. That's more tree-like than the linear bullet points.

Struggled with it many, many times and never came up with a good way to do it. Facts on one or a few grafs, then evaluation, then conclusions on others sort of works.

Orion,

I'm not sure I agree with you. This administration has been masterful at concocting a coherent narrative. (There's even a bit in Plan of Attack that describes Rove writing the character that plays the lead role in the story.) And frankly, that's why they're successful. Bush was something you could consume like Survivor or some other show. If they don't continue to create that narrative it will be too easy to refute them (as it was too easy to refute Kerry).

I'll grant the essential point of the post, which is that "bullet-point thinking" squeezes out detail and connections, both of which frequently are essential to full understanding.

BUT ...

When used PROPERLY, imho, Powerpoint slides are NOT THE PRIMARY COMMUNICATION VEHICLE. Bullet points, which are the most effective style on slides, are like headers or notes; they are intended to provide a structure, introduce topics, and remind readers who review the material after the fact. They are no more the substance of the presentation than is a table of contents the actual content of a book.

Slides SUPPORT a speaker, but the speaker is the primary communicator. Speakers who merely read their slides, or who become an adjunct to the slides rather than the other way around, are misusing the tool.

This of course is why a "stand-alone" written document should NEVER use bullet style. For that, we have sentences and paragraphs and complex grammar.

The "strategy" document released by the White House is an abomination, but that's no reason to condemn Powerpoint, or more generally, summary visual adjuncts to presentations.

hey emptywheel did you read krugman today? he's reading you.

You're right, bleh. But I think there's enough indication that the virus of Template Thinking can jump, and has jumped, from PPT to human in plenty of instances. Of course it's not PPT's fault, strictly speaking. It's the fault of what it's always the fault of: the currently flairing epidemic of humans' overestimating, and yielding in vital ways to, the tools that humans themselves have invented. Eccchh! Homo!

Wow, could I have been any less clear?

What I mean is that humans create a series of kludges (attempts, really) we call tools - Powerpoint, ideologies, religions, cars, etc. - but when the kludge is in danger of becoming obsolete, we often cleave to the tool rather than see the need to invent the next one; and in the meantime, we neglect to see the irrational ways the tool itself is directing, limiting our behaviour. The phemomenon of rigid Ideology is a salient example lately (reality must conform to ideology rather than the other way around). It's a conservative implulse, but we all do it in some way or another.

Have you seen the Gettysburg Address Presentation? It does a great job of showing the problems of thinking in powerpoint.

http://www.norvig.com/Gettysburg/

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