A slide into mediocrity

The PowerPoint presentation is redefining public speaking. Tara Brabazon argues that it is an unnecessary evil

September 4, 2008

The room was dark. An electric hum whirred. There was some whispering and impatient shuffling of shoes on carpet. A central screen bled blue light. A shadowy man hovered over a keyboard. The screen burst with colour. Life drained from the room.

Yes, it was going to be another of those presentations. You know the ones. Some bloke wrote a series of PowerPoint slides during the continental breakfast at the conference hotel and is now pretending that he has developed a polished and well-constructed argument. He fails.

He seems to forget that most of the audience can read his bullet points yet, for some reason, he repeats them aloud anyway. To offer some innovation in the predictability, he garbles around the headings, pretending that he is doing the conference equivalent of John Coltrane jazz improvisation with the English language. It could be a situationist experiment, but there is neither the content nor the context to make it clever or ironic. It could be performance art, but it looks as dull as it sounds.

I do not hate PowerPoint. It is only software and is not worthy of an emotional response. But I do despise PowerPointers. Public speaking at its best can inspire, enthuse, agitate and transform. It provides leadership, hope and a pathway to change. In an era of timeshifting and mobile communication, it is a special event for people to gather in the same room and experience the power of words at the same time. A great speaker and a great speech are rare and special.

The problem is that business meetings started to require that informal feedback – often termed “briefings” or “interim reports” – be shaped into some form of public presentation.

Middle managers were asked to convey content to their colleagues and because most of the population shake themselves senseless at the thought of speaking in public, tools were invented to mask the fear. Butcher’s paper, slides and overhead transparencies were used by those who could not gobble enough Valium to quell the trepidation.

Then PowerPoint arrived. Almost the entire text from a speech could be placed on slides. Nothing would have to be memorised. The frightened middle managers could simply parrot the bullet points they prepared earlier and hide behind a keyboard while they were reciting their lists. Perhaps appropriately, the software was invented in the year of fictional dystopia, 1984, by the company Forethought, which was purchased by Microsoft in 1987. There is something Orwellian about PowerPoint, caused by its ubiquity through business and education and its easy transformation of knowledge into mantras. But there have been costs for the speaker, speech and audience. The format encourages simplified inventories of complicated ideas.

This problem is made more serious because the software that was originally marketed as a business application spread through schools and universities in the late 1990s. Todd Parker, an English professor at DePaul University, said: “When they were first introduced, I thought I’d be happy to use such aids, but after trying several of them, especially PowerPoint, I’ve come to loathe them all with a passion – in particular because they easily become a crutch for the poor student and a stumbling block to students already too disengaged from the act of learning.”

There is a sizeable minority of people who dislike PowerPoint and/or PowerPointers. Julia Keller asked in a Chicago Tribune column: “Is PowerPoint the Devil?” Thomas Stewart in Fortune wrote an article with the impressive title “Ban it now! Friends don’t let friends use PowerPoint.” Even from the pages of Wired, Edward Tufte confirmed that “PowerPoint is evil.”

PowerPoint is a crutch for poor speakers. Once they start using the programme, they rarely stop using it. If they do not have access to the software – as we have seen at conferences when the laptop/memory stick fails or the computer system is password protected and all the technicians have gone for a cigarette break – there can be no presentation. The software must speak on a delegate’s behalf. Although the shaking conference attendee has a mouth and brain, without their slides they are left devoid of a voice or ideas.

PowerPoint has not only corroded public speaking but made conferences bland and boring. Most speeches are structured through the same repetitive template. Few bother writing a considered talk, assuming that constructing slides is all that is required. They align a few bullet-pointed phrases, import a couple of animated gifs and add a quirky cartoon, assuming that their efforts have magically morphed into a speech.

I wonder what would have happened if Martin Luther King had used PowerPoint for “I have a dream.” Would there be a tasteful slide of the “red hills of Georgia” and the “mountains of New York”? Some fine mahogany furniture could represent “the table of brotherhood”. Would an attractive image of his “four little children” be included along with a picture of a large boulder of granite to represent the “stone of hope”? We do not have to imagine this clash of a great speech with mediocre software. A YouTuber has taken the audio from the Martin Luther King speech and PowerPointed it. It is called – and coolguy54168 really stretched himself with this title – "I have a dream speech slideshow".

The complexity, passion and energy of King’s words are dragged down to the banal and literal. But it does demonstrate how PowerPoint can undermine and minimise even the greatest of speeches.

The purpose of public speaking is to communicate. The goal is to facilitate dialogue about important ideas. In so many cases, the proto-PowerPointed room is reduced not just to an artificial dusk, but blackened completely except for a slash of light from the screen. While our middle managers used to hide behind butcher’s paper to mask their nerves, now audiences cannot see the speaker at all.

What about PowerPoint in educational environments? We wonder why students have stopped coming to lectures. It is not only because slides are uploaded and distributed from the course portal. Students would still attend if academics delivered more than PowerPointed content and ideas. Unfortunately, the slides are the lecture. Why would they come if every word and idea is available to download at their convenience?

Teaching materials used to be constructed after the text of the session had been written. Music, visuals and physical objects were chosen and deployed in response to learning needs. Now too many teachers let the tools dictate the form and flow of their lectures, tutorials and seminars. The fault is not PowerPoint. The problem is how PowerPointers use it. The tool has become more important than the reason why it is used. What could be an innovative, occasional hub of sound and vision is used as a crutch by lazy, frightened or inexperienced teachers and ill-prepared speakers.

The best use of PowerPoint emerges when it displays evidence or further information and does not replicate the oral content of the speech. It is – at its best - an effective slide manager. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth slideshow is a masterful mixture of talk and visuals. He rarely reads the words on the screen. Instead, he uses the slides as a starting – or reference – point for his engagement with an audience.

Gore was successful because he did not confuse the objectives of public communication with the support tools for speaking. It is the predictability of PowerPoint presentations that is the most disturbing part of their application. It is Fordist software for assembly line sessions.

Barack Obama, one of the finest public speakers we have seen in political life in the last decade, focuses on the words, the tone and the ideas. A concise message is presented in a polished fashion. Perhaps – at least for four years – we may not have to suffer a PowerPoint President.

Through Obama’s example, it is time to bring back diversity and excitement to public speaking. Surely, someone is tiring of the cycle: plug in a laptop, darken a room, show the first slide, second, third, fortieth and then the final slide with “Thank you” and an email address. Lights on, next speaker steps onto the podium, plugs in a laptop and darkens the room…

We need to stop this behaviour. With some courage, we can find both power and the point. And we can leave on the lights.

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