I’m approaching a coming all-day orientation session with a sense of foreboding. I’ve seen the agenda which is reasonably appropriate. But what is appended is a presentation document. You can guess – it’s death by PowerPoint again -in spite of the fact that it is 2016. So for the benefit of all participants – those who design presentations and those who have to sit through them, I am sharing a generic template for your mutual use. It needs to be inserted on page 2 just after the title page.
If a handout were simply a take-away of the main facts, it might be vaguely useful – if rather boring. But I fear that forty or more of us have been invited to a “read-along”. The organization concerned had a recent review and the conclusion was that its operation was dysfunctional, that participants were passive and unengaged, that they were inundated with background materials that were excessive and sometimes unreadable and that the real role of the body was to rubber stamp decisions. This year was to be a new start with real effort to effect change. It doesn’t look as though it’s going to happen any time soon.
One of the challenges of institutions of any kind – and this one has a long and venerable history – is that they live in a bubble. The idea of using slides isn’t new. My children used to love visits to their grandparents in the seventies, when a grandfather showed them pictures of themselves on a big screen. Some of us will even remember carousel projectors. The idea of linking laptops and screens changed everything and the Mighty Microsoft is credited with inventing presentation software – though it didn’t. Forethought Inc. originally even called the original program Presenter. But PowerPoint made it easy and first came out in 1990 as part of Windows 3.0. All one had to do was to fill in the headings and the bullet points.
I travelled to Durban South Africa in 1999 to make a presentation to the conference of the International Hotel and Restaurant Association. Why a sole practitioner from Toronto would be invited to do so is another story – I was nervous about the right media interface and different plugs so I brought along clear transparency sheets – and felt more than vindicated when the jazzy PowerPoint opening presentation crashed before an audience of more than a thousand. But soon like everybody else, I was using PowerPoint. Something from the beginning told me that templates were all wrong for presentations though everybody was using them. A son suggested that I read Presentation Zen and its author, Garr Reynolds, agreed that templates were not a good thing. That led me later to Nancy Duarte’s book, Resonate. If anybody out there is using PowerPoint for anything at all, please, please acquire these books and take them to heart.
The heart of the matter is this. If you want to engage and inspire people, text on a big screen doesn’t work the way you think it does. Duarte makes this clear when she distinguishes between reports, presentations and stories. Reports summarize facts. Stories provide drama. Presentations fall in the middle and need to move back and forth between the two. The template has to be more like a film and less like a document. We don’t curl up in the evening in front of the big screen to watch a page of text.
The orientation summary sent out in advance of the coming meeting in is a report. I’m going to take my Ipad and Iphone along. Both contain a wealth of good stories to pass the time when I need to. Don’t get me wrong. PowerPoint is handy for a presentation if you start from a blank screen and use high quality images and as few words as possible. I have modelled my own designs on those of an excellent presenter that I first saw nearly 20 years ago when she showed colorful images, cartoons, and word art with a different voice-over of her own at breakneck speed. What she did in that presentation activated our feelings and we were inspired. Presentations require artistry. My own presentations are laughably modest compared to what real artists can do. But at very least we need to recognize, as Nancy Duarte observes that presenters are not mentors. The role of heroes presentations rightly belongs to the audience.
Let’s back up a bit. It used to be that a presentation was a social event. You would have to go out to attend one and you joined with other people in the room. You would only get to experience it once. You couldn’t take any of its content home unless you made your own notes. It was something that delighted you, inspired you, annoyed you, puzzled you, confronted you. The coming presentation for the weekend has been sent out in advance as a product, a digital commodity, something that can be read, saved – or more than likely trashed. The bright side might be that all of this is being given away for free – and I don’t even have to attend. The dark side is that the presenters have diminished the coming session as a chance to interact, to envision, to inspire and to make us change.