Lessig on PowerPoint

Following up on Deven’s recent, well-deserved praise of Larry Lessig‘s Free Culture, I wanted to mention the rather distinct grounds on which I’ve often had occasion to praise Lessig: His use of PowerPoint.

I’ve long had doubts about the the value of PowerPoint as a pedagogic tool. Essentially, I’m unsure what it adds. Often, I hear folks talk about visual learners, but does PowerPoint – at least as commonly used – do much for such learners? Too often, I see speakers use PowerPoint simply to squeeze in more information, with less structure, thought, and analysis, than they might otherwise bring to their remarks. Listeners, I have consequently come to suspect, may actually be learning less with PowerPoint. Perhaps I’m not yet ready to conclude that the crash of the space shuttle Columbia can be traced to PowerPoint, as some have suggested. Given its capacity to bury and obscure relevant information, though, I’m not far off.

Some time ago, however, a friend forwarded me this link, to a talk and PowerPoint presentation by Lessig, back in 2002. (Even if you’ve seen it, I’d encourage you to sample it again, as a truly amazing piece of work.) Basically, by the spare use of select words and phrases, Lessig successfully conveys both his broad themes and a substantial amount of information, in a way that even visual images – let alone line after line of PowerPoint text – could never have done. I’m confident that my absorption of the relevant ideas and material was exponentially greater than my normal (perhaps abnormally low) rate.

Here, Lessig credits someone else with helping to create the final product, perhaps affirming Deven’s point about his modesty. At a minimum, though, he deserves credit for his excellent judgment, in recognizing a good thing when he sees it.

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5 Responses

  1. Bruce Boyden says:

    I’m a big believer in simple PowerPoint. But when I saw this presentation in person, I found the slides incredibly distracting. They called so much attention to particular words I had to look down at the floor to hear entire sentences. It might work better on a website.

  2. Robert Ahdieh says:


    That sounds plausible. I’ve only seen it online, and perhaps the absence of focal points besides the slides themselves increases their effectiveness.

  3. Liz Glazer says:

    Those who write about presentation style have named Larry Lessig’s method of using Powerpoint the Lessig Method. See here: http://www.presentationzen.com/presentationzen/2005/10/the_lessig_meth.html, for some commentary and a link to a really great presentation where Dick Hardt uses the Lessig Method.

  4. greglas says:

    I tried it once in a presentation just to see how it worked — it’s fun, but I have mixed feelings about the effect. Also, I think he’s kind of claimed that style, so when someone else does it, it feels a bit like parody.

  5. I am mightily impressed with the Lessig’s 2002 presentation. However, I doubt that, either as a classroom teacher or a conference presenter, I will have many occasions that justify spending quite so much energy on just the graphics of a presentation.

    I am constantly trying to improve my use of PPT. One of the most useful recent sources that helped me use it more effectively is this article by Deborah Jones Merritt at OSU Law: “Legal Education in the Age of Cognitive Science and Advanced Classroom Technology.”

    Here is the link and abstract:


    Cognitive scientists have made major advances in mapping the process of learning, but legal educators know little about this work. Similarly, law professors have engaged only modestly with new learning technologies like PowerPoint, classroom response systems, podcasts, and web-based instruction. This article addresses these gaps by examining recent research in cognitive science, demonstrating how those insights apply to a sample technology (PowerPoint), and exploring the broader implications of both cognitive science and new classroom technologies for legal education. The article focuses on three fields of cognitive science inquiry: the importance of right brain learning, the limits of working memory, and the role of immediacy in education. Those three areas are fundamental to understanding both the effective use of new classroom technologies and the constraints of more traditional teaching methods.