Presenting information: Paper vs. Presentation

A few days back, I wrote about Organizational Entropy as described in Shannon Entropy and Productivity: Why Big Organizations Can Seem Stupid by Dr. Richard Janow. In addition to the actual paper, in .pdf format, was (what I assume is) a .pdf’d PowerPoint version of the paper presented at the IEEE Engineering Management Society meeting in November 2003.

I am assuming that the presentation version was put together to be handed out to attendees at the meeting as some sort of “takeaway”, but this makes we wonder why not just hand out the paper itself? Many of the slides are simply the various equations or charts from the paper, with some descriptive text, and some were (crowded) bullet lists of various points from the paper.

Perhaps the slides were just a way to display the information for members of the audience to see – kind of like a professor filling up the chalkboard ahead of time instead of in realtime. Again, though, why not distribute the paper itself and let the audience use that as a reference.

My thoughts on this are somewhat prompted by comments and writings I’ve been exposed to – most notably Larry Prusak and Edward Tufte– and training I’ve received over the years related to public speaking and making presentations.

Last summer at the Army Knowledge Management conference, Larry Prusak was one of the keynote speakers on the last evening. He was preceded and followed by senior Army and Department of Defense executives, all of whom used a seemingly endless onslaught of densely packed Powerpoint slides. He opened with the following (somewhat paraphrased, but very close):

I took PowerPoint off my computer 4 years ago…. It is good for novices, I guess…. I know you don’t want to watch me read slides for an hour.

It is safe to say that of all the “lectures”, his was the most informative and most enjoyable to listen to.

Tufte has a lot to say about PowerPoint in his self-published, 27 page booklet The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. From the introduction,

Alas, slideware often reduces the analytical quality of presentations. In particular, the popular PowerPoint templates (ready-made designs) usually weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis. What is the problem with PowerPoint? And how can we improve our presentations?

If you are familiar with his other works, you will recognize this as an extension of his overall teachings concerning effective visual presentation of data and information.

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