The Breakup Style of PowerPoint

The scene: The bar at the Bovine Sex Club, during Kickass Karaoke’s 5th Anniversary. I’m ordering a pint of Shanghai Stout from Deanna the bartender when a young woman approaches.

Her: Hey, Accordion Guy, got a minute?

Me: Sure. What’s up?

Her: You’re a computer guy, aren’t you?

Me: Yeah. Got a computer problem?

Her: Sort of. You see, I got dumped last week…

Me: Oh. Sorry to hear that.

Her: …by e-mail. What I wanted to ask was: Is that normal for computer guys?

Me: I don’t think so.

Her: And if that wasn’t enough, he fucking listed everything that was wrong with me. In fucking point form.

Me: That’s strange.

Her: Tell me about it!

Me: Wait. You know, maybe it’s not so unusual. I just remembered — you’re not the first to say this. You’re the third or fourth person this year to tell me that she got dumped by email and had reasons why listed in point form in the past year.

It’s true: since the beginning of the year, a handful of people have told me that they were dumped in this fashion. If you go farther back, you can add two more to that list.

The underlying idea of using email to deliver unpleasant news isn’t all that novel. You’ve probably had to phone someone to cancel plans and were relieved to get their voice mail or answering machine rather than the actual person, and you may have even heard of situations where people have broken up over the phone. Breaking up in writing was common enough for the term “Dear John Letter” to be coined. In these situations, the bearer of bad news is trying to weasel out of having to deal with the reaction.

Listing the reasons for a breakup, whether the breakup is taking place in person, by postal mail, over the phone or email, isn’t new, either. What is new is listing the reasons in point form.

I believe I know the cause of this phenomenon. Allow me to illustrate it:

1. We start dating. 2. ??????? 3. DUMPSVILLE!


Or more accurately, office culture, of which PowerPoint is a cornerstone.

(The slide above is part of a hypothetical PowerPoint presentation that I would’ve made for the New Girl from this story.)

I think that the “Dear Jane” emails that those people received were inspired by elements of office culture: PowerPoint, project post-mortems and annual performance reviews. Of the people who told me that they were dumped via email, all of their boyfriends worked white-collar jobs in which they either sat through or made PowerPoint presentations.

As Information Architecture guru Edward Tufte points out in his book, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, PowerPoint presentations sacrifice substance for style, are incredibly information-sparse, use abbreviations and syntactic shortcuts since you can’t fit that much on a slide and are really for the benefit of the speaker, not the audience. PowerPoint faciltitates getting through an unpleasant task as quickly as possible, which is a primary goal in both business presentations and breakups.

You might think I’m being facetious by blaming PowerPoint. However, history and everyday experience show us that our technology affects our culture, from things as simple as levers and the wheel to cell phones, computers and the internet.

Furthermore, the same technology can have a different “spin”, depdending on the manufacturer. Consider the general grittiness of PlayStation and XBox games (and note that both consoles are in imposing black cases) versus the relative kid-friendliness of Nintendo GameCube games (and the console’s cute white cube). Better yet, consider the “digital lifestyle” feel of the Mac and its applications versus Windows and its apps, which Danny O’Brien aptly summarizes with this sharp line in this blog entry:

Ultimately when you use MS software, you’re not the end user MS perceives at all: we’re just living off the scraps Microsoft leaves out after feeding its big customers.

As software evolves and we move on to the next big thing, I figure that social software will provide us with new paradigms for breakups. Perhaps Orkut will lead the way, and one day we’ll get messages like this:

12 replies on “The Breakup Style of PowerPoint”

Wow. That gave me a great laugh-my-ass-off experience this morning. 😉
I think that some folks are in a level of Powerpoint-induced cognitive dissonance that the only way they can think is in bullet points, not a proper narritive. And couple that with the increasing reliance on e-communicaton to handle anything you don’t want to handle in person, and you get the Powerpoint breakup.
Here’s the part that weirds me out. I can’t do bullets anymore. If I’m working on notes on a wiki, it’ll be all in narritive form, no bullets. I agonized over my latest powerpoint presentation (in front of the corporate CEO) because I couldn’t figure out the best way to do bullet points.
Besides, how do you make a bullet point for “Introduce co-worker in most amusing way possible in front of the CEO of your company”?

Ha! I quoted Tufte in an intra-office msn message yesterday. But your blog entry is oh, about a million times more entertaining than my little message was. I will have to link to this off my blog, and then point my colleagues to it.

My first thought was that breaking u[ by e-mail is a wimpy, weasle-like thing to do. (I think the phone is also unacceptible.) However, it did occur to me that you might get more honesty about the reasons for a breakup from a bullet list, rather than “It’s not you, it’s me.” and “Ineed a change.” platitudes that people often say when breaking up in person.
– wife of Platypus, using his account –

Just to show, that there are worse possible ways to be dumped then by an email.. take this as an example. Before you ask, yes this really happened.
One night, thinking everything was fine, I check my GF blog, and low and behold it says… I am going to visit Alex to tell him I am dumping him, and I have met some one new.
It then prattles on about how she felt it was worth the $ to come and do it in person. Never mind the fact she had just announced her intentions to the world 24 hours before the specified trip.

I was dumped via email in 1998. I worked at an ISP, and my girlfriend was a university student. The email could be said to have listed my faults in point form, if each point is taken to be a raving, hystrionic paragraph!
Sadly, I no longer have an archive containing that email. It was a truly painful, scathing Dear John letter!

Heh. The “PowerPoint breakup” would seem to be a form of incongruent communication. One of the main topics of the AYE (Amplifying Your Effectiveness) Conference is congruent communication, and it’s the only conference I know of where presenters *never* use PowerPoint. Over on the AYE Wiki, they have a page discussing why. I pointed them to this blog entry, and Jerry Weinberg asked me to provide the reciprocal link:
— Laurent Bossavit

Joey, I loved the screenshot, BUT feel compelled to mention that to be true to the PPT format, stylistically one should eschew using full sentences. Or even proper grammar.
Here’s my remix:
Dumping you: Reasons


Who you were

What you did

Your lifestyle

Child-abandoning mother of two


Unusual level of police interest in you

Your claimed proof that P = NP

Feel free to incorporate my humble suggestions as you see fit.

We use point form because we understand visual language better now than we did in the past.
It’s a way of saying: These ideas are all structurally related, and we’re going to make the structure clear for you.

Getting dumped by sms is worse than by email. Then it’s Powerpoint in abbreviation. To use your slide as a reference, by text messaging that would be:
“U R dumped. U lied abt who u wr & wt u did, yr crak-smkg chld-abndng mthr/2, cops want 2 ? u, p!=np”.
… when really all you needed to say was “cya lsr”.

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