From Edward Tufte, “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint” ( Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, 2003):

Bullet Outlines Dilute Thought

Impoverished resolution coerces slide-makers into using the compressed language of presentations – the bullet list of brief phrases. . . .

For the naive, bullet lists may create the appearance of hard-headed organized thought. But in the reality of day-to-day practice, the PowerPoint cognitive style is faux-analytical. A study in the Harvard Business Review found generic, superficial, simplistic thinking in the bullet lists widely used in business planning and corporate strategy. What the authors are saying here, in the Review’s earnestly diplomatic language, is that bullet outlines can make us stupid:

In every company we know, planning follows the standard format of bullet outline... [But] bullet lists encourage us to be lazy in three specific and related ways.

Bullet lists are typically too generic. They offer a series of things to do that could apply to any business. . .

Bullets leave critical relationships unspecified. Lists can communicate three logical relationships: sequence (first to last in time); priority (least to most important or vice versa); or simple membership in a set (these items relate to one another in some way, but the nature of that relationship remains unstated). And a list can show only one of those relationships at a time.(1)

By leaving out the narrative between the points, the bullet outline ignores and conceals the causal assumptions and analytic structure of the reasoning. (Tufte 5)

Tufte is right. Let’s look at the relationships that complex sentences can specify:

SUBORDINATE CLAUSES:

 

Relationship

Words

Time

when, whenever, after, before, until, as as long as, once, while

Place

where, wherever

Cause

since, because

Concession

although, though, even though, while

Contrast

whereas, while, than, rather than

Condition

unless, if, provided that, whether, as long as

Manner

as, as though, as if, how

Similarity

as . . . as, just as

Exception

except

Purpose

in order that, so that, in order to, to

Description

[relative pronouns:] who, whom, which, that

 

COORDINATE CLAUSES:

“and,” “or,” “but,” “nor,” “for,” “yet,” and “so,” as well as appositional clauses, specify the relationships of equivalence or addition.

LOGIC WORDS that begin a sentence or independent clause:

Cause

thus, consequently, therefore

Qualification

however

Substitution

instead

Negation

rather

Addition (logically necessary)

moreover

 

SAMPLE: Whereas sentences can relate ideas in many complicated ways, and sentence ideas can be posed in an infinite number of combinations so that we cannot even imagine all the possible permutations, nor generate them via computer, bullet lists are completely predictable and replicable artificially, and thus such list-making does not promote thinking; rather, it precludes thinking.

Subordinate Clause -- Contrast
Coordinate Clause -- Addition
Subordinate Clause -- Purpose
Main Clause

Coordinate Clause introduced by Logic Word ("thus") -- Cause
Independent Clause introduced by Logic Word ("rather") -- negation


 

BACK to Narrative as Technology


Notes

(1) Gordon Shaw, Robert Brown, Philip Bromiley, “Strategic Stories: How 3M Rewriting Business Planning,” Harvard Business Review, 76 (May-June, 1998), pp. 42-44. Back.