What PowerPoint can’t show you

Why does PowerPoint Presentations that Changed the World rank so high on the list of books that will never be written? Perhaps the clue’s in the title.

PowerPoint has been with us for over twenty years but during that time it has gained more of a reputation for sending the world to sleep than changing it.

Great orators, past and present, have managed to get by quite nicely without it – preferring instead to weave their magic with words alone. Would Nelson Mandela’s statement at the opening of his trial have been more powerful, or Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech more moving if they’d been delivered as PowerPoint presentations? I think not.

Riffling through his collection of clip-art, and desperately entering multiple search terms in Google, Churchill would have struggled in vain to find a picture of an “iron curtain” to accompany his famous speech. Time pressure would have forced him to abandon his strikingly original idea in favour of something more literal, mundane and attainable, like a brick wall, or a barbed-wire fence.

I just broke off writing for a moment to try the experiment myself. Googling the phrase “iron curtain” produced the image below, which is clever but understandably fails to depict the paradoxical nature of something both soft and hard at the same time. Not surprising really because the brilliance and power of Churchill’s image come from the fact that it’s literally impossible.

It’s what rhetoricians call an oxymoron: that is, a contradiction in terms – a sort of condensed paradox. Other well-known examples of this figure of speech are “darkness visible”, “deafening silence”, and “bitter sweet”.

At first sight oxymorons like these may appear to be little more than a bit of clever, but meaningless, word play. But a second more thoughtful and less literal look often reveals a poetic truth or insight – one that captures not just the look of an experience, but its feel.

How many of us have inadvertently created a deafening silence by opening our mouth and putting our foot in it? Or had a bitter sweet experience during the course of an intense, but ill-starred love affair?

Images in PowerPoint slides are limited by their literalness – whereas the only limitation on an image conjured up by words is our imagination. Mental images aren’t confined and restricted by frames either – they don’t have edges. So in our mind’s eye we can begin to appreciate the full enormity, and sweep, of Churchill’s monumental “iron curtain” as we watch it descend “across the Continent”.

The images that words evoke in our minds are not just pictorial either – they are multisensory. We feel the soft unyielding hardness of the iron curtain in our bodies – it doesn’t just help us understand the tragedy of a divided postwar Europe intellectually, it helps us feel it too.


  1. I totally agree that there is some word imagery that cannot be reduced to actual pictures. The iron curtain is a wonderful example.

    But I think you’re being too hard on PowerPoint/Keynote and other slideware. Would not “An Inconvenient Truth” be an example of a slideware presentation that is playing a part in changing the world? Don’t TED presentations – many of which do use slideware – play a part in changing the world?

    P.S. Haven’t forgotten that I haven’t yet replied to our discussion on your last post. But I need to find the time to read the references…

  2. Martin Shovel says:

    I’d like to leave “An Inconvenient Truth” to one side because I plan to write about it at a later date, and also because at 100 minutes it’s far too long to be thought of as a standard presentation – at least I hope not!

    TED talks, on the other hand, make an excellent yardstick for the standard presentation – and at an average length of 18 minutes are models of brevity, and audience-friendliness, we should all aspire to.

    I’m a big, big fan of the TED website because it has one of the best – if not the best – collections of online videos of interesting speakers at work to be found anywhere on the Internet. And I’m curious that you chose it to make your point about slideware because when I look at my list of favourite TED talks, most of them either don’t use slideware, or hardly use it all.

    For example, one of the most popular and iconic talks on the site is by Sir Ken Robinson. His talk – which we’ve used in many of our masterclasses – is an excellent example of how words alone can fire an audience’s imagination and transport them to another plane.

    Another talk I like is Dan Pink’s – true, it uses a few slides but the talk would be as successful and popular without them. Pink’s talk engages us because of the way he uses language.

    On the other hand, the talk by lexicographer Erin McKean is, I would argue, an example of a talk in which slideware bloat diminishes the impact of an interesting talk. Again I believe with fewer slides this could have been a much better talk.

  3. Martin,

    I applaud your passion for the need to hone one’s words and craft compelling language that can stand on its own.

    Having said that, I agree with Olivia that you are being a bit harsh on PowerPoint and other slideware (collectively, PP). PP does have a role to play in public speaking, and an important one at that. Granted, it would be completely out of place in the speeches by King, Mandela and Churchill to which you refer above, and thankfully is not usually used in such speeches today.

    However, in many other instances, PP can be used to enhance the power of a presentation. The problem is that PP is too often misused or abused. For many people, the knee-jerk reaction to being told that they must give a presentation is to fire up the PP and start filling the slides with bullet points and clip art. But most of them have never been given any direction in this respect and can only go by the (typically bad) PP presentations that they have seen in the past.

    PP is neither inherently good nor bad. It is a tool like any other. A knife can be used to hurt someone or to carve a beautiful wooden sculpture. Same knife, different outcome. So, too, is it with PP. Books like “Presentation Zen” are filled with ideas about how to make PP much more effective for speakers and pleasant for audiences.

    It is interesting that you cite the TED talks, which I also enjoy immensely. I just finished a series of articles on my blog about how to make speeches and presentations memorable. It was based on the book “Made to Stick”. Over the course of the series, I used links to six speeches, five of which were TED talks (including the Dan Pink talk you used). I just checked and the result was a draw. Three used PP and three did not.


    John Zimmer

  4. Hi Martin,

    Really interesting post, thanks. It’s particularly fascinating to me because I spend a lot of my life trying to take complex, abstract information and set it in the context of concrete examples so it can be more easily understood — and here you are, heading in the opposite direction: wanting to escape the shackles of concrete, boundaried, visible examples and leave people’s imaginations to roam at will.

    Of course, I think there is a time and a place for both. Students learning a tricky concept need specific examples, and making something concrete often aids understanding. But I think you make a really excellent point here: that there is no room in concrete, specific visuals for the imagination to wander, and that by tying things down to the visual domain we leave little room for the listener or participant to explore oxymoron or other paradoxical, impossible spaces .

    Thanks for this; something I’ll be thinking about for a while.


  5. Audience pre-disposition to actually pay attention has to come into this. Speeches work well when the audience want to listen. Visual aids, particularly well-designed slides with animation that focuses attention, can be effective to force attention with an audience that isn’t paying attention.

    There’s room for both – but I would rather use (genuinely visual, animated) visual aids if I had to teach maths to teenagers, or present to a reluctant audience.

  6. Martin Shovel says:

    Hi Chris,

    Many thanks for your thoughtful comment. The good news is that we’re actually heading in the same direction. Like you, we work with clients who are trying to get across complex – and often abstract – ideas and information. And, like you, we absolutely encourage them to use concrete language as a means of clearly explaining their messages.

    If you explore our site you’ll find that we believe that good communicators are people who use visual language – when they speak, others can ‘see’ what they mean. In our view, concreteness is one of the essential qualities of this kind of language.

    If you read my recent post on why David Cameron is a better speaker than Gordon Brown, you’ll get a good idea of exactly where I stand on the issue of abstract v concrete language. It’s a topic I plan to write a lot about in future posts, as it really is one of my hobbyhorses!

  7. Martin Shovel says:

    Hi Joby,

    Thanks for your comment. It’s difficult to talk about these things in the abstract – but I’m certainly not against the idea of using visual aids in situations where they might make the difference between a presentation that works and one that flops.

    What I am against is the idea that the starting point for every presentation should be the PowerPoint template. Think about the words first; make them as visual and engaging as possible – and if, after having done this, you still feel that a slide or two could make your presention even better, by all means go for it.

  8. Hi Martin,

    Thanks for that. I guess one of the important things to remember is that the perceived ‘need’ to use visual/concrete language (especially with a non-expert audience) can sometimes pose a barrier to our own thinking, or that of our audience — some of whom may not respond to visual language or imagery.

    I am certainly making my language more concrete and specific with learners these days, though I need to give the whole subject more thought.

    Still chewing! 🙂


  9. Martin Shovel says:

    More good news, Chris! In our experience all audiences – especially non-expert ones – respond to visual language. It’s the ‘open sesame’ of communication – that’s why we’re so excited about it!

  10. I’m not sure if I would start with the words first, as if I *did* end up wanting slides, I wouldn’t necessarily want to have written a script, as performance becomes stilted.

    How about starting with the arguments/content planned out (but not scripted), and then from there, create visual aids where they are needed. Sometimes those aids are slides, and sometimes they might be other types of visual, and sometimes a speech is enough.

    I think that we can agree that political speeches would not benefit from slides; but then, investor events without graphs would become incredibly difficult.

    I can’t help but think though… TV is much more popular than radio, and that must be for a reason.

  11. Martin — that’s certainly good news for my students 🙂

    Less useful, perhaps, for those members of an audience who are highly specialised in what I am talking about and/or who don’t really care about the slides, because the multidimensional concept-space in their heads is *much* more interesting and detailed. (Then they ask questions that blow my mind. My best friend is like this, actually 😉

    I generally spend less time worrying about the latter group, because they probably won’t get lost (unless my story is too boring) and can often amuse themselves — one of my instructional mantras is “leave no student behind”, so I tend to focus on making sure that those struggling to keep up are still with us. But I think that complex, non-visual group are often easily ignored; it’s about building a multi-layered product/presentation/experience that reaches people at different levels. Obviously that’s hard, but the benefits are worthwhile!

  12. Two last thoughts:

    1. Churchill, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela are clearly great orators, and they didn’t use PowerPoint. They wouldn’t have been helped by it either. But, I think we can also agree that most sales managers would have been happy to have Churchill making sales calls, but unable to recruit one of the world’s greatest leaders for £25k + uncapped commission. I don’t create a successful business by copying what works for the world’s elite – unless I have them working for me. If regular sales guys try using oxymorons, they may well sound like thme
    2. Even aside from An Inconvenient Truth, I’m fairly sure that many PowerPoint presentations have changed the world. Think of the projects that were given the go-ahead, the technologies that were discussed and refined. Think too that trial lawyers in the US make extensive use of slides. Hell, the Iraq war – the US Government presented ‘evidence’ using slides at the UN, didn’t it?

  13. Martin!

    I agree wholeheartedly and think your examples were well chosen. Here’s another famous and brilliant one:



  14. Martin Shovel says:

    Adam, thanks for supplying more good quality grist for my mill!

  15. Hi Martin,
    This is one of my most passionate subject, and I’m more than happy to join the discussion started on twitter earlier today.
    First thing that strikes me in your post, Martin and your blog, is that it is actually very VISUAL.
    The first time I “heard” of you and Martha was thanks to your short animated movie.
    In this post, you’re using plenty of illustrations, even the TED videos which don’t include ppts are great videos, visuals, sounds, movement, much more than sheer voice.
    So the dicussion here is not about using or not visual aids, it seems to be about the systematic use of PPT for any kind of presentations.
    And I can only agree to the absurdity of this practice.
    From my experience as an executive trainer, lecturer in different European Business Schools, I’ve witnessed the same contagious disease.
    You’re asked to deliver anykind of course, workshop, conference.
    First demand from the client is “Send us your ppt!”
    We used to design our courses from the ppt format and even worse, distribute printed ppt slides. Until a few years ago, I used to do this to and struggled to keep my content into this artificial format.No Oxygen.
    Thanks to people like Garr Reynolds, who brought some innovation, thinking and design into the world of business presentations, the concept of simplicity and “Zen” in visual presentations slowly developed.
    (There, I make a disgression, stressing the difference between political speeches and business presentations, which have different purposes…)
    The focus is now back on the presenter, the message he or she wants to communicate, rather than on the medium, the PPT slides and its horrible beam in a dark room, sending executives to sleep or play with their iPhones or multifruit berries…
    Recently, I had to facilitate a TeamBuilding seminar for International MBAs. I had designed a very “Zen like” short and sleek, design & Chic ppt with pictures purchased in iStock photos, few words, big fonts, very “Steve Job” styled…
    I was very proud and eager to “show off”, I had rehearsed and prepared carefully.

    I had not anticipated I would spill my coffee on my laptop, the day before, ruining my unsaved ppt.(The laptop, a brand new MacBook, is still alive with a mouse and keyboard transplant). Oh, lala! Désastre! Malédiction!
    When I showed up the next morning, after a night trying to bring back my bonniemac to life,I had in fact all the presentation ready in my mind and was completely available for the participants.
    I told them many stories, I listened to them and asked them plenty of questions, I was more flexible and available than if I had sticked to my initial plan, which was ,more secretly, to make a Marion show.
    Of course, I had integrated the components of the presentation and was in fact making it “Live”.
    It was the best presentation ever. I felt free, natural, spontaneous, close to my audience and gave them more space too.
    Preparing with visual aids, ppt slides and even better mixing with mindmaps , can be a fantastic way to get sharp and ready .
    1) It enables you to anticipate and structure your presentation, to think about the illustrations you might want to use.Then you use homeopatic dose.
    2) You hand pick the best quality slides, the “wow” effect illustrations. That’s all.
    3) You rehearse and rehearse, and eliminate. You “prune”.
    4) It’s a great discipline and framework, from which one has to free oneself and move out of the ppt box.
    5) It’s a means and should be used with only one question in mind:
    What added value is it bringing to my audience?

    A wonderful way to do this is to embrace the Magical Story Frog Prince.
    You tell stories, you ask for stories from your participants, you make an imaginary fire and warm yourself around!

    As Terrence Gargiulo says “If a picture is worth a thousand words, a Story is worth a thousand pictures.”
    Warmly, Marion.

  16. Martin Shovel says:

    Wow, Marion! What an absolutely wonderful, and passionate, post. I couldn’t agree more with what you say, and I think you’ve expressed it very well indeed. Thanks for taking the time to make such a rich contribution to my blog!

  17. Hi Martin

    Great blog post.

    I agree that everyone has become a bit obsessed with powerpoint. I think the availability of the LCD projectors has also contributed to the popularity. I remember creating simple talk books using pwerpoint slides when presenting to potential clients when working for a major accounting firm. They worked a treat as the focus was on having a discussion with the prospect.

    Keep up the great work.

    Duncan Brodie

  18. Wow, wow, wow, what beautiful writing in the comments. Sorry I don’t have time to contribute right now. Will come back later.

  19. I can make my contribution to this debate with a video anecdote. See here:

  20. Thanks for the posting, certainly stirred up some quality discussion.

    Certainly agree re the comments on great orators and ppt. However, when training people on good practice in giving presentations, I’m very conscious of making sure they can walk before they can run.

    What do I mean? My contention is that there is a *lot* of cultural residue to overcome in how presentations are delivered. Despite the excellent literature and research in recent years, very little of that knowledge has permeated the great mass of people who give presentations on a regular basis. My experience is largely in academia and the public sector, and I can’t recall seeing any presentation which has taken on board PZ, Duarte et al

    If one accepts that many/most presenters have ‘standard’ ppt practice ingrained in their psyche, I suggest there is a quandary for the trainer. Showing them a Robinson, Obama, Clinton etc certainly demonstrates how you can get your point across without slides. However, these are incredibly skilled orators; is there the danger of turning people off? “That’s OK for the likes of them, but I’m not a great speaker!” etc. Then there is the issue of overcoming the “that’s how its always been done”.

    The course I’ve just co-written is relatively short, just a couple of hours, so perhaps that has skewed my judgement a little. Am I being too conservative?!

    PS Whenever I hear ‘iron curtain’, I’ll always see that cartoon now 🙂

  21. Martin Shovel says:

    Hi Warren,

    Thanks for your very interesting comment. I agree that it’s absolutely essential that clients being given presentation skills training should learn to walk before they run. And I also agree that most clients have had little, or no, exposure to cutting edge ideas and techniques in presentation skills training and communication.

    But the encouraging news I have for you is that the visual language skills that great communicators like Robinson and Obama possess can be analysed and taught – I know because that’s what we do for a living with our clients.

    Whether we’re working two-to-one (Martha and I always work together) with a chief executive on a specific speech, or working with a small group in one of our ‘Words that Move Mountains’ presentation skills masterclasses, clients can be taught how to get their message across in language that’s rich in image, metaphor and story.

    Of course, not everyone can be an Obama or Martin Luther King, jr – but if a client’s willing to learn and practise, then they are definitely capable of dramatically improving their communication skills. And if they keep the learning and practice going, the sky’s the limit!

  22. Cheryl Cooper says:

    Excellent thought-provoking post, Martin !

    For more on the effective use of images for presentations, I recommend “Presentation Zen” – the book and the blog by Garr Reynolds: http://www.presentationzen.com/

    And if you like the brevity of TED talks – come to our event next month : http://www.europeansummit.org – recently cited by the Huffington Post and the TEDFellows blog as the plce to be in November…

  23. Warren wrote:

    “However, when training people on good practice in giving presentations, I’m very conscious of making sure they can walk before they can run.”

    I agree completely. So I suggest going back to real walking, the way they learned to tell a tale before they had heard of Powerpoint. The real basics. Sit face to face and ask them to tell you the story. Ask them to tell you why you should care.

    THEN think about which parts of the tale need what kind of emphasis, and which tools you could use. Props, witnesses, visuals, movement, even slideware (but be careful with the latter 😉 )And remember that for the important parts, the very best tool might just be a look in the eye, a jump in the air, a clap of the hands, a pause for breath.

    The best presentation I ever saw was given by a person with no oratory skill, no technique and certainly no Powerpoint. He spoke almost inaudibly and moved hardly at all. His only prop was his clothing, which he pointed to twice. He held 100 passers-by transfixed for an hour in the burning sun, without even asking them to stop. But he believed what he said, and lived what he believed.

  24. Thank you.

    Though I am a TED aficionado I had not seen Sir Ken Robinson’s presentation. What a wonderful precursor to a dinner party conversation. grin

    As I watched, I designed in my mind what his .ppt might have looked like. Still on the first slide . . . and it’s still blank.

    Gratefully, W!

  25. Martin,

    I’m with you on this one 100%.

    The question is not should I use PowerPoint or not, but what do I want to accomplish.

    If my goal is to communicate information that people can understand and use — which is a common goal of many, if not most business presentations — then I may use PowerPoint. (I personally don’t use it, but I coach individuals and teams who use it all the time.)

    If my goal is to influence how people think and feel or to inspire people to take action — which is what politicians and other leaders usually want to do — I find PowerPoint counterproductive. In such cases speakers are better off appealing to people’s imaginations, values, and emotions. They should use visual language, as you suggest, tell stories, and rely on the power of the spoken word and of the human voice to evoke, entice, and entertain.

  26. If you watch the video clip of Churchill delivering his “Iron Curtain” speech, you will see him make a “chopping” movement with his hand at the words “an iron curtain has descended …” which is a brilliant visual aid using an iconic gesture.

  27. I tend to agree with many of the points raised here but do feel like I have to stick up a little for PowerPoint. Jody makes the point that, when used properly, it can be a useful tool.

    And you know what? In the right hands (and wrong hands), it can be incredibly powerful… http://blog.eyefulpresentations.co.uk/?p=116

    I love the references to Churchill, Mandela and Obama – fine orators who captivate an audience. Whilst we should all aspire to be as impactful as this “A List” of presenters, we also have to face facts that not everyone is able to. PowerPoint can help bridge the gap between them and us mere mortals so let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water, eh?

    Finally, why has no-0ne ever criticised Word for being responsible for boring reports or speeches? How about giving Excel a hard time for making numbers really complicated? Death by Word anyone?

  28. Martin Shovel says:


    Thanks for your comment. Of course, PowerPoint can be a useful tool, but I believe the key to making it useful is never to lose sight of the fact that it is only a tool, that is, something that you may or may not use to support what you say, rather than the platform for you whole presentation – i.e. a ‘PowerPoint presentation’.

    This is where I think your comparison between Word and PowerPoint falls short. The idea of a ‘PowerPoint presentation’ has entered common parlance, whereas the idea of a ‘Word novel’, or ‘Word report’ would leave people understandably puzzled.

    Love it or loathe it, Word is considered – if it’s considered at all – as little more than a tool for writing, organizing, and editing texts – it may be the most widely used word processor around, but it’s not the only one.

    And there’s nothing intrinsic to it that would make the copy it produces any different to the copy produced by its competitors. Plus there’s nothing about it that restricts the kinds of texts you can write with it – it’s capable of producing anything from a novel, and screenplay to a scientific treatise, or a personal letter.

    Finally, I think the average presenter/speaker actually has more in common with one of the fine orators you mention, than the kind of presenter who’s skilled and knowledgeable enough to be able to get the best out a PowerPoint presentation.


  29. It’s great to see such a vivid discussion. I’d like to butt in with some remarks, too. First of all: PowerPoint is just a tool which has been too often abused. And as in most of the cases ‘content is king’ hence dressing it up in slides doesn’t help at all. I’ve seen once a presentation delivered in speech only, without any visual aids and it was truly awesome, catching and engaging. It is said that one picture stands for a 1,000 words but it’s true only in rare cases. I’m after communication and verbal is efficient enough IMHO. Providing one has something interesting to say…


  1. […] been some recent comment in the blogosphere on this. for instance CreativityWorks’ post citing Churchill’s ‘iron curtain’ […]

  2. […] post was trig­gered by read­ing the bril­liant arti­cle writ­ten by Mar­tin Shovel, “What Power Point can’t show you” in Cre­ativ­ity […]

  3. […] more, I can swoop down and zoom in to look at the faces of the individual whisperers too. (Compare Churchill’s iron curtain descending across the continent ‘from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic’ […]

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