Friday, 29 January 2010


Apparently the 'pernicious affliction' of PowerPoint presentations may be on the decline (we're talking about the overhead projector ones where the picture is the main event).

Our commentator summarises what must be the classic j'accuse:
PowerPoint is digital Valium for user and viewer alike, calming the fears of nervous presenters while assuring the audience that instead of awkward human interaction, a comfortable somnolence awaits.

He reckons people are moving away from the drug-like technology as it's become 'high art' and therefore not so functional. It has also become something of a graphical arms race with presentations getting more and more technologically sophisticated and expensive. As a consequence some managers, in an outburst of rationality, are opting out, some even dispensing with slides altogether.

However, I can't believe this battle will be won quickly. The perniciousness of PowerPoint runs deep.

Let's put the PowerPoint experience into context. You have an opportunity for speaker and audience to enjoy some face-to-face interaction, something that today is highly prized (pop concerts have never been more popular or profitable). What's more, everyone has invested time, effort and money to be together, in the same room. So you'd expect the human - the bodily, tangible bits of being human, really - to be the main event.

But instead of gestures, looks, expressions and nuances being in the foreground - all the stuff you can't get down the line - Powerpoint hides these elements or distracts from them. You're left with the husk: the sort of passive, mediated consumption of information that you can get by looking at any sort of decent size screen, anywhere.

A scandalous squandering. And therefore something that must be happening for very compelling reasons. Firstly, as is commonly noted, this effect suits a lot of speakers as it shields them from their audience. And who can blame them? Public speaking is a nightmare for many (I certainly used to think so).

The second reason is more subtle and, I believe, more powerful. I think that offering up a wizzy bit of animated Powerpoint has entirely transcended its intended purpose of enhancing communication. It's now more what anthropologists would describe as a 'gift giving' ritual, a potentially powerful mode of social exchange. Gifts are used to as a form of flattery, to indicate respect, to suggest wealth, to create a liability owed to the giver, to ingratiate.

In this way, the medium truly has become the message: the overly-colourful, complicated, difficult-to-follow, dazzling graphics are actually the point. What is being offered is the peacock's tail of presentations. They're big, colourful and get your attention, and they unmistakeably demonstrate that you value your audience, that you had the desire and resources to make the effort to get them something really impressive. You might not have made a particularly useful effort. But, whatever: it sure looks good and must have taken some fairly expert people ages to put together (and that's an easier and more self-satisfying an appraisal to make than having to do the work of judging the content).

This seems a great example of how technology sets out to do one thing - make communication more effective - but is actually used to achieve some near-oppositional goals: reducing the visibility and accountability of the speaker and offering a purely emblematic token of their esteem for you. However, these goals are very alluring ones. They play to fear, on the one hand, and the desire to ingratiate, on the other: two powerful impulses in the corporate world (along with greed, probably the most powerful). I therefore can't see the PowerPoint ritual disappearing anytime soon.


worm said...

very timely! I've actually got to spend all morning making a powerpoint presentation for my father, who's speaking at the Belfry tomorrow. I am going to wow them with shock-and-awe powerpoint tactics. Artistically, I'm aiming for a kind of 'Avatar' vibe, except with more explosions

Brit said...

That's very astute, Gaw. I've witnessed numerous presentation where the 'speaker' simply stands at the side of the stage, mumbling at a series of bewildering graphs.

Recusant said...

"Public speaking is a nightmare for many (I certainly used to think so)."

Ditto. But I hope you haven't become like me, who now positively relishes it and has to restrain myself from delusions of being an omnipotent leader, addressing thousands of adoring listeners just itching to invade somewhere Slavic.

Francis Sedgemore said...

As someone who had to endure for over a decade at scientific conferences thick wodges of handwritten overheads and pages of dense 10pt type turned into acetates, a well-crafted PowerPoint presentation (or preferably OpenOffice Impress) is a godsend.

Rarely these days do I engage in public or conference speaking, but, for those occasions when I do, I have a small number of Impress templates. All of these feature a subdued, single-colour background with a subtle gradient, and a simple animation for bullet points which shades each in turn after I've moved on to the next point. These presentations seem to work very well. I've had many people remark how useful they are, and easy on the eye.

Death by PowerPoint is a serious hazard, but presentation graphics software packages do have their uses.

dearieme said...

Can we eliminate Bullet Points next? When you see people counting down the bullet points so that they can ask about "bullet point four", you see the advantage of numbering your points instead of bulleting them.

Sean said...

Chart Wars This is a top presentation.

Gaw said...

Worm: I'm sure the elders of the Belfry will appreciate the Abrahamic sacrifice your father is proffering.

Brit: Being something of a pedant, during such presentations I spend all my time looking for typos, verbal infelicities, grammatical mistakes and formatting inconsistencies.

Recusant: I managed to overcome my block in this area when I began thinking of speeches as conversations with more people than usual present. Rhetoric and all its glories remain a forbidding mystery to me - which, as you illustrate, may be just as well!

Francis: I was careful to define the pernicious presentations as those where the picture is the main event. I'm not opposing the use of OHPs by any means. And I certainly wouldn't do so in the arcane arena of Science, which I'm sure has requirements, constraints and conventions of which I am ignorant.

Dearieme: But what if you don't want your points ranked? It's bound to happen, you know.

Gaw said...

Good God, Sean - where do you find this stuff? It's certainly a good example of the medium being the message. The most complicatedly cool graphic wins!

Gaw said...

Francis: Having read the post again, I take your point. I was implying something I didn't want to. I've now amended the first para to be clearer. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

All part of our post-human age, in which authority resides not in human beings but in the things made by human beings, preferably in such as a way as to awe and disconcert and irritate human beings. Check this out:

malty said...

There is a very strong link between the rise of Power point and the decline of communication.

In the early days, after Power point had become the hot ticket..

'Why aren't you using powerpoint, everyone else does' looking at the carousel as if it were an anvil.

'The people that I give presentations to have spacial awareness and are awake'


Gaw said...

Elb: That is a truly brilliant bit of satire - it's so true you can almost feel it biting. Can't say better than that.

Malty: When I think of the best speakers I've ever heard, I can't recall any of them hiding behind a PowerPoint presentation. A sort of obvious point but one that doesn't seem to be weighed in the balance in most business circles.