Zooming in on the Defects of PowerPoint

Zooming in on the Defects of PowerPoint

 I’ve just finished several days of staring, hour after hour, at the year’s economics meetings via Zoom.  What really struck me, beyond the content of the talks, was the way Zoom exacerbates “death by bullet point”.

PowerPoint’s capabilities encourage speakers to load up their slides with lots of text and graphics, which then leads the audience to glue their eyeballs to the slides and not the speaker.  This defeats the core purpose of public speaking in the post-Gutenberg era, which is to use the audience’s engagement with the speaker as a vehicle for communicating thoughts and feelings that the written word, even accompanied by pictures, can’t express.  The worst scenario, which all of us have experienced way too often, is when a speaker crams lots of text in tiny fonts into each slide and then reads it word for word.

As a teacher, I deliberately tried to upend this tendency without abandoning PowerPoint altogether.  I constructed very simple slides with as little text as possible, using very large fonts and relying on spatial organization, like lists and things pointing to other things with arrows to give listeners a sense of the ongoing structure of my presentation.  Sometimes I would insert charts or tables, but usually with only two or three headline quantities or relationships, easily seen in a brief glimpse.  I wanted students’ attention to be focused on me, not my slides.

A few of the speakers I saw this week had the same strategy, but it was defeated by Zoom.  The standard Zoom screen gives you a tiny speaker window next to a massive space for slides; the main effect of PowerPoint minimalism was to produce a screenful of whitespace.  You could barely see the speaker even if you wanted to.

Why isn’t the ratio of screen space devoted to slides versus speaker image customizable?