Does PowerPoint Actually Make You Look Better?

PowerPoint is an overused device used primarily by lazy speakers who are unable or unwilling to put together a more compelling speech.

Right? Well, although that line of thinking is increasingly pervading presentation best practices lists, not so fast.

Here’s a counterintuitive idea for you: using PowerPoint actually makes you more credible, not less.

That conclusion can be drawn from at least one study, which was highlighted in the May 28, 2012 issue of The New Yorker:

“Last year, three researchers at Arizona State University, including Robert Cialdini, a professor of psychology and the author of “Influence: Science and Practice,” conducted an experiment in which they presented three groups of volunteers with information about Andrew, a fictional high-school student under consideration for a university football scholarship. One group was given Andrew’s football statistics typed on a piece of paper. The second group was shown bar graphs. Those in the third group were given a PowerPoint presentation, in which animated bar graphs grew before their eyes.

Given Andrew’s record, what kind of prospect was he? According to Cialdini, when Andrew was PowerPointed, viewers saw him as a greater potential asset to the football team. The first group rated Andrew four and a half on a scale of one to seven; the second rated him five; and the PowerPoint group rated him six. PowerPoint gave him power. The experiment was repeated, with three groups of sports fans that were accustomed to digesting sports statistics; this time, the first two groups gave Andrew the same rating. But the group that saw the PowerPoint presentation still couldn’t resist it. Again, Andrew got a six.”


That’s powerful information, which might be explained this way:

Steven Pinker, the author of “The Language Instinct” and a psychology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that PowerPoint can give visual shape to an argument. “Language is a linear medium: one damn word after another,” he says. “But ideas are multidimensional. . . . When properly employed, PowerPoint makes the logical structure of an argument more transparent. Two channels sending the same information are better than one.”


The key phrase in Pinker’s quote? “When properly employed.” As I’ve written many times before, the problem usually isn’t the tool, but the user. Most speakers diminish the effective of their presentations when they commit one of the five most common PowerPoint mistakes.

It’s worth reading the full piece in The New Yorker, which also offers an interesting history of PowerPoint. You can read the article here.

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