Presentations are Corrupting per Edward Tufte’s “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint”

Presentations are one of the most frequently used methods of communication in the modern workplace. However, Edward Tufte argues that they reduce the analytical timbre of communication. In other words, presentation slides lack the resolution to effectively convey context, “weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis.”

Tufte, an American statistician and academic, is renowned for his work The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, a bestselling text on data, statistics, graphics, visualization, and information.

'The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint' by Edward Tufte (ISBN 0961392169) In his cranky pamphlet The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, Tufte offers a sharp-tongued criticism of presentations as a communication format. He argues that we treat slides more as a medium for self-expression than as a medium to connect with our audiences. His most revealing examples of how presentations corrupt our elegance of expression are his critique of NASA’s slides from the Columbia shuttle disaster and a parody of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address condensed into a PowerPoint deck.

By forcibly condensing our ideas into bullet point-statements, phrases, and slides, Tufte contends that we break up narrative flow and flatten the information we’re trying to convey. In particular, he claims that presentations’ bullet points can’t signify logical relationships well and thus dilute the audiences’ thought process. The resulting message is watered down, lacks proper emphasis, and doesn’t communicate the context very effectively.

Tufte favors well-structured memos that convey ideas comprehensively, clearly, and meaningfully. In agreement, I’ll offer two articles next week about Procter & Gamble and Amazon’s use of these memos as a communication discipline.

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