There are a number of areas where, if someone heard me speak about this or that topic out of context, they might think me to be a Luddite rather than the gadget-loving fellow that I am. One of those areas is the PowerPoint presentation, an infernal invention by my estimation – a view I will explain, if you will just follow my presentation points.
Click. I recall when I first saw “Harvard Graphics,” an early program like PowerPoint, I was really quite amazed. I had read about the program and an ad in a magazine told me how to send off for a free demo of the program on a floppy disk. Seeing a demo run on my own computer left me impressed and eager to try the software on for size. How wonderful – it seemed at the time – to have a presentation drawn out by really beautiful slides.
That stayed my view for a long time, but over a period of several years, I found myself souring to the whole idea and trying to figure out why. I recall sitting in more than one classroom where a professor said precisely what they had already displayed for our reading pleasure on screen. Or worse yet, professors who faced the screen and read from it. I recall other speakers who made really atrocious looking presentations. And worst of all is the presenter who suggests, in lieu of notes, to take a “note taking” copy of the presentation and write annotations beside small copies of the pictures on screen.
Click. Odd as it may sound, I started to find myself rather sad to think the day may very well come when school children never hear the sound of chalk against the chalkboard. Instead, they will zone into a screen projecting colorful images, not unlike the TV that likely eats up much of their free time when at home.
The problem is the coldness of even the cleverest presentation. While it is vastly better than, say, a slide projector clicking through the same material, almost all presentations feel fixed. They feel isolated from the audience. One study that recently caught my attention even suggested that people retain less when a presenter uses presentations software. At first glance that might sound counterintuitive, but consider it for a second before you dismiss it.
The reason is simple really. PowerPoints leave no room for even the illusion of interaction. When someone has a whiteboard or chalkboard, even if they are lecturing without any plans to draw in the audience, the fact that the board is written on by a human who could at least potentially do something differently than planned in her notes leaves a feeling of interaction. This is a live event. Arguably the intention of a person doing public speaking is to give a sense of spontaneity to something that is anything but. However, this impression simply cannot be given when the audience is constantly reminded that the speaker is almost mechanically tied to the giant picture being shown in front of them. Presentations shout “this is all prepackaged, if an entirely different set of people than I had expected was before me today, nothing would change in what I am telling you.” There is a warmth and humanity to “boring old mediums” such as chalk, much like what exists in seeing a play performed live on stage or listening to a orchestra playing live.
Click. In the midst of the cloud of chalk dust, a real person is writing something, and there is a sense that it is written just for this audience and not prerecorded – even if that notion is totally false. We would frown on the idea of dumping speakers and merely going into every meeting and every class to watch nicely produced videos from the presenter. Though videos pop up everywhere these days, there is still a sense that a live person is somehow better. How is that so, though, if that person is all but tied to a nicely produced video-like thing? Frequently the person giving a presentation while using PowerPoint could just as well project herself on the screen and save the trouble of appearing in person.
Click. Ultimately, like so much of life, speaking is relational. When I listen to someone speak, even if they do not know me, there is a sense of connection – a sense of conversation. Click. I fear that presentations software works again that, indeed, in many cases it kills that.
Perhaps it is too late. Click. Perhaps we expect “production values” instead of actually learning something. Click. Perhaps the safety of something pre-produced makes us feel better. Click. Perhaps we can only think in terms of slide. Click. After slide to be clicked through.
Nevertheless, perhaps. Click. It is worth disappointing people. Click. Visually and seeing. Click. If instead. Click. We can. Click. Again, well, click with those we speak to.
Timothy R. Butler is editor-in-chief of Open for Business.