Powerpointless

“Will the slides be made available?” Such is the cry of the precocious student to the lecturer, intent on studying diligently for their exams.

“Does anyone have the slides for that talk?” Such is the plea of the poor unfortunate who missed the talk in question.

Both of these petitions rest upon a similar assumption: that the slides for a given talk or lecture are a reasonable alternative to experiencing that talk or lecture. But this assumption is wrong and, dare I say it, harmful.

Presentation slides are not standalone content. The best presentation slides are visual aids dependent on the context created by the speaker and entirely meaningless absent that context. The worst presentation slides try to replicate the entire content of the talk, but are limited by necessities and conventions of the format such as font size and the use of bullet points. They are too verbose for visual aids and not verbose enough for written content, attempting to serve two purposes and failing at both.

The question “will the slides be made available?” encourages the creation of this worst kind of presentation while discouraging the creation of material that would actually be useful absent the presence of the speaker. Admitedly, speaker absence is less of a problem in the Youtube age, as a recorded version of whatever talk you’re interested in is likely to be available for later viewing in video format.

But then, the elephant in the room is whether your content is right for a live talk or video at all.

In the Youtube age, everything is a video on a channel, especially things that would be better as blog posts.1 There are economic incentives for this. Blogging was a lucrative money spinner in the late 2000s, before adblock become widespread.2 Now the money’s in Youtube videos – at least the ones that don’t contain swearwords.

I first noticed this shift in gamedev content. When I learnt how to use Game Maker circa 2006–2009, it was through a .chm help file and the occasional tutorial blog or forum post. On the rare occasion I came across a video, well, the feature phone I did most of my web browsing on couldn’t view it, so I just closed the tab. When I tried searching for Unity tutorials circa 2014, I just got a bunch of videos. The only extant text content seemed to be transcriptions of videos. And so I didn’t learn Unity.

Don’t get me wrong, video tutorials are great for a lot of things, especially more visual and/or physical activities. It’s great that the modern internet has a wealth of educational video content covering subjects like drawing and painting, exercises and stretches, spoken languages, practical DIY projects and things that just aren’t as good from a book. But programming and similarly text-heavy technical work does not fall in this category and won’t until Bret Victor’s visual programming revolution finally arrives.

The few times I’ve resorted to watching technical video tutorials, I’ve found myself scrolling back and forth to find screens of code I want to take a closer look at, sometimes adjusting the video quality to make sure the text is legible. Forget about copy-pasting anything.

Apart from the obvious economic advantage creating a video has over creating written content, there’s ease of creation. Now, I’m not denying that many creators of very slick and polished video tutorials spend many hours writing scripts, recording and arranging video clips, recording and rerecording audio, applying effects and so on. But the majority of video tutorials are just a screen recording with running commentary. I’m guilty of making one such tutorial, long ago. Compare that to the amount of time it takes to write a comparable amount of content, populated with well-cropped and relevant screenshots, and the discrepancy is obvious.

Even if we make our comparison completely like-for-like, an unedited, grainy Unregistered Hypercam 2 video with a voice-over reporting live from a snowstorm is much, much lower effort and less useful than a poorly written article with, say, unindented code and uncropped images. Even if your writing is bad, the mere act forces an organisation of thoughts that doesn’t happen in a rambling monologue (at least not for most people). And this way I’ll be able to copy-paste your code somewhere else to fix the indentation.

And a beautiful and polished tutorial video with crisp high-def visuals, well-thought-out content organisation, and narration in a smooth clear voice that you’d listen to just for the pleasure of hearing it… well, it would be more useful as a well-written, well-structured article with appropriate screenshots and a nice syntax highlighting theme.

Maybe this is just me and I’m generalising from one example, but when learning very technical subjects, I need to be able to reread, and to go through different sections at different paces. To highlight a few words and search them. To come back to a particular section later. Or to just skip to the one part I’m actually interested in.

Trying to do any of that by scrubbing through a video is just a subpar experience. Even getting through the video in the first place is an exercise in wasting time – the human mind is capable of reading much faster than listening, especially speed reading. Having to start up a video is an imposition – I have to set aside X minutes,3 skip through like-and-subscribe-and-bell-icon exhortations, and then maybe switch to a different video and do it all again if I can’t understand the narrator’s accent.

But I’d still sooner try to learn something from a video tutorial than a SlideShare presentation.


  1. And if it’s not a video, it’s a Twitter thread, but that’s a whole other rant. Stay tuned – or, should I say, press the bell icon. ↩︎

  2. Adblockers also work on Youtube, of course, but desktop users are a minority of viewers, and, anecdotally, a lot of people seem to actually disable their adblockers for channels they like. ↩︎

  3. Even at 2x speed, there’s a specific time commitment that wouldn’t be present with an article you can arbitrarily skim. ↩︎

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