Journal: News & Comment

Friday, January 17, 2003
# 12:35:00 AM:

Why PowerPoint is like a sauna in a Saab

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[UPDATE: I posted some followup material on January 19, following good responses from my readers.]

Sometimes people do strange and difficult things just because they're strange and difficult -- like converting an old Saab car into a portable sauna with hood barbecue (via Barc). Yeah sure, it's cool, but I hope it was fun, because you couldn't call it especially productive.

Presentation software like Microsoft PowerPoint (and now, Apple's Keynote) isn't much different. People get so caught up with the software that they forget about the presentation -- or the audience, which is the most important thing.

I'm certainly pleased that Apple has finally wrought a credible competitor for PowerPoint, so many years after Aldus Persuasion (or even the MORE outliner/presentation app) evaporated. Heck, Apple should make a Windows (and Linux!) version, even if it lacks some of the whizzy effects, just to defibrillate the presentation marketplace. I might even buy it.

What dismays me is the continuing emphasis on presentation software in itself, instead of on the actual presentations and the people making them. I've previously noted "It's the Story, Stupid," a Doc Searls piece on this topic from nearly five years ago, which was subtitled "Don't Let Presentation Software Keep You From Getting Your Story Across." Key points:

Presentations are as much about slides as poetry is about handwriting.

More often than not, all anybody remembers -- including the speaker -- is that a bunch of slides got shown.

It's not your presentation. It's your version of a PowerPoint [or Keynote, or Steve Jobs] presentation.

In this context, nothing has changed in five years. Longer, really.

I haven't seen Keynote myself, but in my dreams the whizzy effects (3D slide transitions etc.) would be secondary to some sort of storyboarding that could help even the inexperienced presenter put the flow (not the bullet points, but the story) of a presentation together, press for simplicity in the slides, encourage the speaker to move around and look at people, and prompt for interaction from the audience. Being able to take notes and jot marginalia onto the presentation slides on the fly would be excellent. And small file size would be nice, though I assume an export to Acrobat PDF might take care of some of that.

No one has mentioned those sorts of features, so I assume they're not there. Of course, Keynote was "built for Steve Jobs" (he apparently used it for a year before its public release), and he is a legendary public speaker who's even had the term "reality distortion field" coined for his speaking charisma. He doesn't need any coaching in how to speak well, and he doesn't take suggestions from the crowd at Macworld, so why would my new features be there? It wasn't "built for Derek." But it would help if there were some real innovations in presentation software.

Here's how I've recently avoided Microsoft dependency: I gave a 90-minute presentation last night, but I made up all 21 of my slides in HTML using the BBEdit text editor and a graphics program. Never mind fancy transitions and animation effects -- I made the slides under Mac OS X (testing using Safari) and displayed 'em on a Windows XP laptop (using Internet Explorer) a few hours later.

I could have fit two or three of the slide sets on a floppy disk, though I used a USB card reader to move them instead. And I posted them on my Web site as a backup, so I could have done the presentation from any Net-connected computer. The slides on this site are exactly what I used for my talk, not some converted version from PowerPoint or anything else. I spoke from notes printed on paper. Oh, and I popped over to use the basic WordPad word processor occasionally mid-talk, to type down notes and suggestions from the audience on the screen as we went along (which I could then save for later follow-up).

Maybe other people demand more from their presentation software than I do, but sometimes I wish people would demand less. Or different, at least. Heck, I wish most presenters would use a simple onscreen slide show, or old-style film slides, or an overhead projector, or a whiteboard or flipchart! It's the person doing the presenting that matters, not the screen.

That would really help everyone see that the Microsoft way ("To create presentations, you write and design slides") is not the only way. Maybe when we went to meetings and conferences, we'd get presentations that were better saunas, too, rather than a whole bunch of converted Saabs.


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