Visual Aids: The Danger of Oversimplifying with Bullets

Boehner slide

Click to embiggen

I’m not going to touch the politics of whether the looming sequestration is a good idea or who is responsible for it. But I am comfortable declaring that this slide used by House Speaker John Boehner to summarize the issue is a great example of what’s wrong with the way people use PowerPoint. There’s far too much information on this slide, and the widescreen format makes it really hard to scan the individual bullet points without losing your place. But the worst thing about this example is that it tries to condense an extremely complicated issue that will have a huge impact on the lives of millions of people into one easy-to-digest slide.

Robert Gaskins, one of the original developers of PowerPoint, has said that the biggest problem created by its overuse is that it has essentially made people lazy, that creating bullet points has led us to simplify things that we shouldn’t. People in business, he says:

have given up writing the documents. They just write the presentations, which are summaries without the detail, without the backup. A lot of people don’t like the intellectual rigor of actually doing the work.

Boehner’s slide is meant to distill the sequestration process into little bits that are easy for House members to process. But that’s the problem–each of the bullets on this slide represents a complicated idea that you’d hope the people voting on our laws would take the time to master. And the fact that the sequestration–designed to be so painful that it would never actually happen–now seems imminent shows that our representatives clearly didn’t see the implications of what they were considering. Edward Tufte has argued that reliance on PowerPoint slides hid the gravity of the threat to the space shuttle Columbia and ultimately helped lead to its demise. PowerPoint in the hands of politicians can be just as dangerous.

Boehner Debt Framework Slides

Edward Tufte: PowerPoint Does Rocket Science

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