The cognitive style of TiddlyWiki

“The [PowerPoint] slide format has the worst signal/noise ratio of any known method of communication on paper or computer screen.” [page 26]

Cover of 'The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint', Edward R. Tufte

I have just finished reading an essay entitled “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within“, by Edward R. Tufte, which has been a brilliant read. Tufte’s assertion, evidenced by almost a dozen case studies, is that PowerPoint is a distinctly sub-standard tool for conveying information to an audience, especially if that information requires or benefits from a degree of comparative analysis or consideration.

Tufte’s argument centres around the concept of a default “cognitive style” inherent in a PowerPoint presentation:

“…foreshortening of evidence and thought, low spatial resolution, an intensely hierarchical single-path structure as the model for organizing every type of content, breaking up narratives and data into slices and minimal fragments, rapid temporal sequencing of thin information rather than focused spatial analysis, conspicuous chartjunk and PP Phluff, branding of slides with logotypes, a preoccupation with format not content, incompetent designs for data graphics and tables, and a smirky commercialism that turns information into a sales pitch and presenters into marketeers.” [page 4]

Tufte’s conclusion is that a word processor and the device of sentences combined into paragraphs is the presentation tool of choice, with PowerPoint returned to its role as a “Projector Operating System”, used for showing full-screen images and video.

I recently used TiddlyWiki, which is the open source project I work most closely with, to give a presentation to a group of executives about the work I had been doing with Osmosoft. This presentation was created as a series of photographs taking up the screen, which I talked about; I could dip in and out of the full-screen mode to show other content and a demo. The flexibility of TiddlyWiki – essentially the flexibility inherent in any webpage – was clearly apparent. This was further enhanced by the other four or five presenters using TiddlyWiki to present, and each having a different feel or style of presentation.

TiddlyWiki as a presentation tool

Tufte outlines a specification for an ideal presentational tool, which would combine:

“…a variety of page-layout templates […]; publication-quality tools for reporting statistical evidence in graphs and tables […]; mathematical notation […]; a scientific spellchecker and thesaurus; open-document non-proprietary formats; large-paper color printing of reports; and within-document editing of words and graphics.” [page 30]

This is aspirational but, I would have thought, not out of reach; I am amazed that we continue to produce billions of PowerPoint slides every year. After my experiences with trying TiddlyWiki as a presentation tool, I am considering it as a candidate for Tufte’s ideal. Tufte’s main gripes with PowerPoint are summarised in the paragraphs below, alongside my interpretation of how to avoid these problems using TiddlyWiki: –

1) The linear sequence of a slide presentation, coupled with the extremely low information density found on a slide means that information is arbitrarily cut up and condensed so that either the entirety of a single topic fits on a single slide or related information is split up across multiple slides, preventing cross-comparison and contextual reading.

This is where TiddlyWiki shines as an alternative to PowerPoint. TiddlyWiki is built to encourage non-linear navigation through a document – it behaves much more like a hyperlinked web site than a slideshow. Because it is easy to arrange and style the printed output from a TiddlyWiki, creating printed materials for your audience to refer to is easy.

2) PowerPoint’s inability to present large data-sets effectively denies the human eye’s ability to parse and process large data tables, such as the weather or stocks pages in newspapers, with hundreds or even thousands of numbers. Presenting information in an inappropriate form leads to audience confusion and doesn’t do the credibility of the presenter any good.

TiddlyWiki’s approach to presenting information of different formats is to allow the presenter to tailor their viewport to suit the information they are showing at any given time. In my example above, I presented full-screen photos using one mode and presented an interactive interface for giving a demo when that was appropriate. TiddlyWiki doesn’t try to force a user’s hand into using a single, inflexible presentation template.

3) The standard mode of presenting text in a PowerPoint slide is via the hierarchical bullet list. The use of bullets, or “power points” to present information, engenders a paraphrasing of critical information to fit into available space, which itself shrinks as you move through the hierarchy; a consequence of this is that information is overly generic. In short, the bulleted list encourages sloppiness.

The bulleted list in PowerPoint has replaced the humble sentence as the default choice for presenting information in the slideshow format; the standard format of projection onto a wall means that text has to be large to be visible. This has become the norm in presentations of complex information, despite its inadequacy. TiddlyWiki abandons the slide-per-slide sequence and accommodates the storage of detailed information that can be printed out for your audience to read. The result is that the use of TiddlyWiki discourages sloppiness.

4) PowerPoint “best practices” amplify the problems referred to above: in a study of 654 slides in 27 PowerPoint textbooks, Tufte found that the median number of words per slide was 15, and that they had a density of characters something like 30-40 times less than major news websites, such as BBC News or the Los Angeles Times. This “dumbing-down” of information is further encouraged through the use of “AutoContent Wizards” in PowerPoint, which eat up screen real estate with content-less decoration, and provide generic and trivial, hierarchical bulleted lists.

TiddlyWiki sees a lot of use in the educational sector and for personal organisation. This means that its roots are very different from the roots of PowerPoint, which are in sales pitches and high-level executive summaries.

Tufte’s final conclusions are that presentations would be improved if the style changed from focusing on a projected presentation to focusing on a written report and discussion about the report, led by the presenter. The caveat is that the sub-set of presentations this applies to is the perhaps 25% – 75% of presentations where the aim is to evaluate options, present findings, problems to solve, or convey information of a technical nature. With this in mind, I think I will continue to use TiddlyWiki in preference to PowerPoint.


  1. FND
    Posted October 9, 2007 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    That’s a brilliant analysis, Jon!
    This really shows TiddlyWiki’s potential in a very distinct (though largely unbiased) way.

    One problem with hypertextual presentation tools: The presenter has to point and click – not to mention scrolling – which might disrupt the flow of the presentation.
    (This is where Osmosoft’s “telemetry experiments” might come into play… )

    However, I have to admit that I don’t always agree with Tufte’s reasoning.
    For example, concise bullet points and keywords are not necessarily a bad thing – if the presenter manages to supply the necessary background information. (Of course that means slides are only suitable for actual presentations, not for regular publication.)
    The sentence structure is mostly not suitable for presentations, as the audience will rarely read long chunks of text. If that is necessary, it should be considered using a different medium (or channel) – for example, e-mails, a paper, or (ideally) a wiki page.
    Just my $0.02…

    Since it kinda fits into the general topic: Please get rid of the Snap Shots popups; they’re incredibly annoying.

  2. Posted October 10, 2007 at 10:10 am | Permalink


    Thanks! I concede that Tufte is very critical of PowerPoint without giving much coverage of its good points and valid uses. I was speaking to Chris Hall last night who said that PowerPoint is simultaneously “the best piece of software ever and the worst”. Tufte does have a disclaimer that I refer to, which says that his arguments only apply to the 25%-75% of PP presentations where PP is not the right choice, the percentage depending on the field.

    For hypertext presentation tools, if you’re smart about how you arrange the viewport and limit the size of text and images, you can avoid scrolling. Plus, as you’ve said, grab yourself a handy Wiimote and some Osmosoft tele-mii-try and you’re well away…

  3. I wasn't at your perc%nto presentation
    Posted October 17, 2007 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    I agree the format does have it’s strengths in this respect but I’ve still prefer to use keynote. In particular the ability to draw notes with a tablet I find handy, perhaps an extension to create a TiddlerBox in which the user can create a small graphic would be a good idea.

    I’ve also been looking into the use of TiddlyWiki as a note taking tool for extensive meetings. I’ve been using it myself and I find that, with a little bit of tweaking it could be the perfect replacement for such crap as MS OneNote *shudders* or such like… what say you?

  4. I wasn't at your perc%nto presentation
    Posted October 17, 2007 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    i would also like to know more about the WiiMote teleetry idea… what have you guys been cooking up there? I didnt notice a blog comment

  5. Posted October 17, 2007 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Check it out: