Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Absolute PowerPoint

As I was reflecting on the whole PowerPoint thing last night, I remembered this article originally published in the New Yorker a few years back called Absolute Powerpoint.

Read it and let me know your reactions. If you absolutely can't make time for the whole article, here are a couple of thought provoking quotes. . .

But PowerPoint also has a private, interior influence. It edits ideas. It is, almost surreptitiously, a business manual as well as a business suit, with an opinion-an oddly pedantic, prescriptive opinion-about the way we should think. It helps you make a case, but it also makes its own case: about how to organize information, how much information to organize, how to look at the world.

Today, after Microsoft's decade of dizzying growth, there are great tracts of corporate America where to appear at a meeting without PowerPoint would be unwelcome and vaguely pretentious, like wearing no shoes. In darkened rooms at industrial plants and ad agencies, at sales pitches and conferences, this is how people are communicating: no paragraphs, no pronouns-the world condensed into a few upbeat slides, with seven or so words on a line, seven or so lines on a slide. And now it's happening during sermons and university lectures and family arguments, too. A New Jersey PowerPoint user recently wrote in an online discussion, "Last week I caught myself planning out (in my head) the slides I would need to explain to my wife why we couldn't afford a vacation this year." Somehow, a piece of software designed, fifteen years ago, to meet a simple business need has become a way of organizing thought at kindergarten show-and-tells. "Oh, Lord," one of the early developers said to me. "What have we done?"

Still, it's hard to be perfectly comfortable with a product whose developers occasionally find themselves trying to suppress its use. Jolene Rocchio, who is a product planner for Microsoft Office (and is upbeat about PowerPoint in general,) told me that, at a recent meeting of a nonprofit organization in San Francisco, she argued against a speaker's using PowerPoint at a future conference. "I said, 'I think we just need her to get up and speak.'" On an earlier occasion, Rocchio said, the same speaker had tried to use PowerPoint and the projector didn't work, "and everybody was, like, cheering. They just wanted to hear this woman speak, and they wanted it to be from her heart. And the PowerPoint almost alienated her audience."

This is the most common complaint about PowerPoint. Instead of human contact, we are given human display. "I think that we as a people have become unaccustomed to having real conversations with each other, where actually give and take to arrive at a new answer. We present to each other, instead of discussing," Cathy Belleville says. Tad Simons, the editor of the magazine "Presentations" (whose second-grade son used PowerPoint for show-and-tell), is familiar with the sin of triple delivery, where precisely the same text is seen on the screen, spoken aloud, and printed on the handout in front of you (the "leave-behind," as it is known in some circles). "The thing that makes my heart sing is when somebody pressed the 'B' button and the screen goes black and you can actually talk to the person," Simons told me.

PowerPoint was developed to give public speakers control over design decisions. But it's possible that those speakers should be making other, more important decisions. "In the past, I think we had an inefficient system, where executives passed all of their work to secretaries," Cathy Belleville says. "But now we've got highly paid people sitting there formatting slides-spending hours formatting slides-because it's more fun to do that than concentrate on what you're going to say. It would be much more efficient to offload that work onto someone who could do it in a tenth of the time, and be paid less. Millions of executives around the world are sitting there going, 'Arial? Times Roman? Twenty-four point? Eighteen point?'"

In the glow of a PowerPoint show, the world is condensed, simplified, and smoothed over--yet bright and hyperreal--like the cityscape background in a PlayStation motor race. PowerPoint is strangely adept at disguising the fragile foundations of a proposal, the emptiness of a business plan; usually, the audience is respectfully still (only venture capitalists dare to dictate the pace of someone else's slide show), and, with the visual distraction of a dancing pie chart, a speaker can quickly move past the laughable flaw in his argument. If anyone notices, it's too late--the narrative presses on.

PowerPoint could lead us to believe that information is all there is. According to Nass, PowerPoint empowers the provider of simple content (and that was the task Bob Gaskins originally set for it), but it risks squeezing out the provider of process--that is to say, the rhetorician, the storyteller, the poet, the person whose thoughts cannot be arranged in the shape of an AutoContent slide.

My brother, Chad, who works in the corporate world, originally referred me to this article because he experiences "PowerPoint Burnout."
I think I could be a great PowerPoint presenter, but I don't think I will be. I'd rather be a preacher.


Peter Bogert said...

I have been using Powerpoint when I preach for about 14 months and I love it. I don't go for glitz and try for simplicity as much as possible. However, the ability feed concepts to the mindgates of both eye and ear are very helpful.

Peter Bogert said...

You know, I thought of something else that I should have said. I have found that doing the powerpoint slides for my sermon is a last-step assistant to make sure that what I say is said simply and clearly, and that my points have a proper flow. It's like a pre-sermon tune up for me to review them.

The Bowens said...

Well, well, well! Even though we've moved away from SLO, Pastor Tim can still create a little table discussion for the Bowen family! Way to go, Tim! And, hey - it's fun to be able to participate, even from way up North!

So - Steve's already weighed in and mentioned how strongly he (we, actually) felt about being part of a church that encourages us to "read around the text" - not to be spoon fed. It did seem to say a lot that one particular sanctuary was full of coffee cups, but no copies of the Word. On the other hand, I must say that that particular Church is known across Calgary for leading MANY to Christ. So...

That being said, we have chosen a place that listens to a preacher who encourages us to dig deeeeeeep!

But about Powerpoint - as with many things it can be a tool used for good or bad, can't it? In some places it can be over used - definitely - to the point of entertainment. In other Churches it is a valuable tool that enriches and helps those who need to make a visual connection, or need to have a longer period of "restatement" than others.

Our Pastor here does use Powerpoint - sparingly - so this has been an interesting discussion for our family. It's never a distraction, however, from the core preaching. (Well, there WAS that clip from Monty Python - but it was in the introduction segment... so we won't count that!! :->)

Not trying to persuade you to use Powerpoint, Tim! What works for you, works for you!

Missing you all. Life is good in Calgary, and the tulips and daffodils are up! Love from Susan & Steve.

Amy Kardel said...

PowerPoint! Now there's topic I feel strongly about. I read that New Yorker article when it came out and circulated it to my corporate buddies, because I really agreed with it.

PowerPoint has its uses (complicated formulas or graphical elements), but I am convinced that it often shuts off creative thinking and is *often* misused.
I have sat through so many PowerPoints in corporate life that I may be more jaded than most, so I am really glad that our church leadership is thoughtful about the use of technology and realizes that sometimes low tech beats high tech. (And my humble opinion is that most of us spend too much time in front of screens.)

And that from someone whose passion and bread comes from sitting in front of a screen...