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Mike Anderson | USLHC | USA

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Let me get to the point…

How would have Richard Feynman or Enrico Fermi felt about having to use PowerPoint every week?

High-energy particle physicists involved with CERN experiments spend a lot of their time creating, editing, and reading three types of things: emails, computer code (C++ & Python), and PowerPoint slides.

The New York Times recently had an article about PowerPoint use by the military in an article called, “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint.”  It quotes several people in the military who are quite sick of the program.  One general is quoted as saying “PowerPoint makes us stupid,” and another says, “It’s dangerous because…some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

The article also references a popular essay by a retired Marine colonel, “Dumb-dumb bullets” which describes in detail why the author believes that “PowerPoint is not a neutral tool — it is actively hostile to thoughtful decision-making.”

Ouch.

There were hundreds of comments on PowerPoint after that NyTimes article that I’ve only read a sample of.  It’s interesting to hear other people’s experience, because PowerPoint is such a big part of life in particle physics.

I’ll avoid mentioning how I personally feel about PowerPoint for now, but let me describe its use within high energy physics (along with Apple’s Keynote).

As a graduate student working for a detector at CERN (specifically: CMS), I attend about 4 meetings a week.  These meetings are attended by a dozen or so people and are usually 1 to 2 hours long with, on average, about 5 PowerPoint presentations.

Click to englarge. Length of PowerPoint presentations from a sample of 25 physics meetings in Spring 2010 for the CMS detector. "Backup" slides were not counted. Bins inclue their lower-bound (i.e. a 5-slide talk goes in the "5-10" bin).

Thus, every week I spend about 6 hours a week in meetings watching PowerPoint presentations – and I know this puts me on the low end of a particle physicists’ “meeting-attendance” distribution.

Our collaboration has about 1,500 physicists – is it the best use of their time for each of them to be spending spending several hours a week watching PowerPoint presentations?  Management doesn’t seem to think so – they’ve created a task force to try and reduce the number of  meetings.

But there’s a related problem: the time spent in the existing meetings is already too high.  This is partly the result of the long tail in the graph shown here.  It shows the size distribution of a representative sample of presentations.  Most people hit a sweet-spot of 5 to 15 slides.  What about the talks longer than that?  Are those presenters making effective use of people’s time?  Or could they summarize their work more effectively?

I’ll put forward the claim that the long tail in that graph is not from most people occasionally making a long talk – but rather, it is from a few people who consistently make long talks.  They should be encouraged to cut slides, summarize, and focus on showing only the most important plots.  (Other ways to reduce the burden of meeting were given by another blogger here in the post “I hate meetings.”)

So yes, physicists are dependent on PowerPoint, it is simply the way they share information in a meeting.  So much time is spent watching PowerPoint presentations that it’s easy to say, in general, reducing the length of most PowerPoint presentations would benefit everyone.  Put details in the back-up slides – it would help put an incredible amount of human hours towards more productive activities.

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