2 December 2008

"There's nothing wrong with PowerPoint - until there's an audience"

The other day, my wife went to a meeting that had been advertised as a social event, but which turned out to include a number of unscheduled PowerPoint presentations. On the way out, she said to the friend she was with that she would not have bothered to go if she’d known that they were going to have to listen to three speakers reading from PowerPoint slides.

A stranger overheard her complaint, turned round and sounded as though he was looking for an argument. “There’s nothing wrong with PowerPoint” he asserted, but then added the profound words “until, that is, there’s an audience.”

And he does have a point. I’ve now asked hundreds of people how many PowerPoint presentations they’ve been to that were inspiring or memorable. It’s a question that typically produces a deathly silence. Most people struggle to think of a single instance, and the biggest number anyone has ever managed to come up with is two.

Further investigation into these rare exceptions usually reveals two important facts: (1) the slides were mostly pictures illustrating what the speaker was talking about, and (2) there weren’t very many of them.

However, the idea that slides are essential to the modern business presentation has become so entrenched that you sometimes have to be careful about questioning the dominant orthodoxy – and not just when you happen to be on your way out of a presentation. When I wrote about the (many) problems they create for audiences in Lend Me Your Ears, my publisher’s lawyers tried to get me to tone down some of my comments in case Microsoft, purveyors of PowerPoint to the world, decided to sue.

I refused to change a word, on the grounds that I wasn’t saying anything that couldn’t be confirmed by even the most casual research into audience reactions to slide-dependent presentations – and you have a defence in English law, if you can show that what you are saying is true,

In any case, it’s not actually Microsoft’s fault that slide dependency has become the industry-standard model of presentation. There may be some fairly dubious assumptions built into PowerPoint (e.g. the first set of templates offered to users positively encourages them to produce lists of written words), but the global epidemic of presentational paralysis that we’re up against was actually spawned much earlier by the misuse of overhead projectors – aided and abetted by a technological ‘advance’ in photo-copying technology.

I say the ‘misuse of overhead projectors’ because they were originally invented to solve a problem with writing and drawing on black boards and white boards (which has gone down well with audiences for generations) in large auditoriums, where people can’t always see what’s being written on the board.

That’s why a key component of the first overhead projectors was a winding roll of acetate that enabled speakers to write and draw on it as they went along, and project their handiwork on to a big screen that everyone could see.

All was well for a while, but the rot set in during the 1970s (before anyone had thought of PCs, let alone PowerPoint) thanks to the invention of photo-copying machines that could print just as well on acetate as earlier models had done on paper.

The main casualty was the ancient (and very effective) art of ‘chalk and talk’, through which many of us learnt much of what we learnt at school and university. It was replaced by the use of ready-made slides, consisting mainly of lists of written headings and sentences that were actually the speaker’s notes.

So widespread and comprehensive did this practice become that overhead projector manufacturers were soon able to cut their production costs by discontinuing the winding rolls of acetate, and it wasn’t long before machines that would only accept ready-made slides became the norm.

The advent of computer programs like PowerPoint may have made slides easier for audiences to read than in the days of acetates, but how many of us, when we’re sitting in an audience, really want to read and listen at the same time? And how many of us, when speaking to an audience really want to supply our listeners with a continuing source of distraction?

As the stranger said to my wife the other day, “There’s nothing wrong with PowerPoint – until there's an audience.”

(A fuller discussion of the pluses – and yes, there are some pluses – and minuses of programs like PowerPoint can be found in my books, Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know about Making Speeches and Presentations, London: Vermilion, 2004 & New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, and Speech-making and Presentation Made Easy, London: Vermilion, 2008).


Anonymous said...

Agreed, Max!

I work doing business presentations and have had the toughest time explaining the sales team about the amount of text in a slide...

Has been hard, but we've seen improvements. Too bad they don't speak English.


Tapiochre said...

Oh that's so true Max!

Skilled presenters know what they are talking about and should be able to deliver a full presentation even without the prop of the projector.

That's my tenet when I teach these skills - if you can keep going when the blub goes pop you'll be impressive because it will be clear that you know your content so well, it is second nature to you.

Max Atkinson said...

Anon, Tapiochre and anyone else with views on the matter might like to know that I've decided to hold an end of year poll on the subject - which you can find (and vote on) just below the Blog Archive list.

Tapiochre said...

Good chap!