Saturday, March 27, 2004

In Defense of PowerPoint

"Absolute PowerPoint: can a software package edit our thoughts?" by Ian Parker appeared in the May 28, 2001 issue of the New Yorker magazine. This essay was a strong critique of PowerPoint, Microsoft's presentation graphics program. (PowerPoint is commonly used by business, government and education as a visual aid in public speaking.)

I believe Ian Parker wrote a very good, insightful essay that is well worth reading. I also believe that he never lived in the business world BP -- Before PowerPoint. Business life AP -- After PowerPoint -- is a better world. This essay will tell you why.

When I started my career, PowerPoint did not exist (nor the web). Our challenge: persuade executives to purchase high priced capital equipment. We needed a presentation. Corporate marketing at our headquarters created presentations on 35mm slides that we placed in a carosel projector. In our field offices, we referred to these presentations as "the corporate story". The corporate story included a picture of the headquarters building, some graphs showing our financial performance and that sort of thing. These presentations were professionally done, but not terribly relevant to our customers. They wanted to know more about what our product could do for them. Plus, to see the slides, you had to turn out the lights, and there's nothing like darkness to make your audience sleepy.

These presentations were not exactly what we needed. As a result, most of my colleagues created their own presentations. They winged it. They "ad libbed". They spoke without preparation, thought, consciousness or concern for the listener. Many were in love with the sound of their own voice. Many in sales have the gift of gab without the gift of great public speaking skills.

Since I was new to all this, I would listen in the back of the room and take notes. Rarely was there a beginning, middle, and end to the presentation. Instead, I heard a stream of consciousness blathering passing itself off as a coherent speech. Sometimes the speaker went on for an hour. When it was over, I would try to figure out if there was one key point I could take away from the presentation. Usually I could not.

Over the last few years, the prevalence and dominance of PowerPoint has been highly criticized. The criticisms levelled at PowerPoint are many:

(1) PowerPoint constrains the imagination of the speaker.

(2) Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech would have suffered with PowerPoint.

(3) PowerPoint templates replace critical thinking by the speaker.

(4) PowerPoint reduces self-expression to "bullet points".

Let's examine these criticisms.

(1) PowerPoint constrains the imagination of the speaker.

Constraining the speaker's imagination is normally "a good thing"; unfortunately, very few people have any imagination. Often they mistake "imagination" for "unlimited time to pontificate about nothing." In the BP (Before PowerPoint) world, most speakers did not put any imagination into their presentations. Possibly because they did not have any or they were too lazy. At any rate, BP, presentations were not only unimaginative, they were also incoherent! Given the choice between listening to an unimaginative, incoherent presentation or an unimaginative, coherent presentation, most of us would choose something coherent.

(2) Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech would have suffered with PowerPoint.

Absolutely true. Dr. Martin Luther King painted an inspired picture of the kind of world we should all live in. He had a vision and he communicated it beautifully. Dr. King was a gifted and inspired public speaker--possibly the best speaker of his time. I think we would all agree that the ten people in the world who can create a speech like the "I Have a Dream" speech do not have to use PowerPoint, if they choose not to.

(3) PowerPoint templates replace critical thinking by the speaker.

Not true. Most speakers do not engage in critical thinking. They are either not capable, or they were never trained, or they just don't want to bother. In these cases the Powerpoint templates provide some structure and suggestions to help the speaker organize his thoughts.

(4) PowerPoint reduces self-expression to "bullet points".

PowerPoint supports "bullet point" communication, but it is not required. It is possible to use PowerPoint completely with pictures, drawings, art and no words and no bullet points. You can even add music and special effects. The default way to use PowerPoint is to create a presentation with mostly "bullets" and this may be the fairest criticism of PowerPoint. If there were a way to help the speaker prepare his presentation by thinking in pictures or diagrams instead of words, PowerPoint could be a much stronger product, and we would have even better speakers with better presentations. This point is very well made by Seth Godin in his ebook "Really Bad PowerPoint". Mr. Godin explains how, where, and why pictures are far superior to bullet points in public speaking.

In our new era of globalization, we find ourselves communicating with people who do not speak our native language very well. We have all experienced the presenter with a heavy accent or inability to articulate key words such that we cannot understand the communication. In this case, PowerPoint bullets have saved the day many times. Most speakers who must present in something other than their native language can read and write the second language better than speaking it. With bullets in the second language, we have a better chance of understanding the speaker.

The world AP (After PowerPoint) is a far superior world. The mere existence of PowerPoint means that most speakers are forced to prepare. There is social and cultural pressure to have your laptop ready to plug into the projection unit. Even if all that PowerPoint accomplished was forcing speaker preparation, we should salute it for that. But PowerPoint has done more than that -- most presentations have a beginning, middle, and end. They have a point. Some actually have a premise, an assertion, evidence, and logical conclusions. This is a tremendous accomplishment and a significant step forward in rhetoric and oratory.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

When People from Los Angeles Marry People from Minneapolis

When people from Los Angeles get married to people from Minneapolis, they have three major areas of conflict. These are: (1) cars, (2) vegetables, and (3) windows. It is possible to work out these conflicts; it is helpful if you are prepared for them.

(1) Cars.

People from Minneapolis drive cars for transportation. The most important buying criterion for a car is its ability to start at -40 degrees Farenheit. If the car cannot start at that temperature, that means you need to purchase an oil dipstick heater. These cost about $15 and have an element that is about 20 inches long. You plug them into a standard electrical outlet. This keeps the oil heated in your car, so that the car will start at minus 40. The trouble is that you must park your car near an electrical outlet. The second most important buying criterion for a car is either front wheel drive or all wheel drive. This means that you will be able to get up hills that are snowy or icey in the winter. You definitely do not want rear wheel drive. The third most important criterion is rust. You want to look the car over very carefully for rust. If it is a new car, most likely there will be no rust. With a used car, you have to be very careful. In Minnesota, once a car has rust, the car's body is ready to rot away, and you need to get rid of it. That's about it -- ability to start at minus forty degrees Farenheit without assistance from a dipstick heater, front wheel drive, and no rust.

People from Los Angeles have never given any consideration to these three important criteria. People from Los Angeles think of cars like clothes. Cars are an expression of your personality and mood. You make a statement with your car -- not with your opinions, your writing, or your behavior. In Los Angeles, it is always important to look good, so you would never drive an old car, because thatmeans you are old and don't look good. You also keep your car washed
and waxed and take great pride in this activity. After all, you would not go out in public with dirty clothes, so you cannot drive a dirty car. It is also very important to keep the front and rear windshield meticulously clean, so that you have good visibility on the freeway.

No one in Minneapolis makes any serious attempt to keep a car clean in the winter. Chances are after you got out of the car wash, the water would freeze in the locks and then you might have trouble opening the doors. Visibility does not matter that much -- you pretty much hope that the other drivers are not driving white or gray cars, and you can always make out the image of a colored car even if your windshield is covered with slush.

To provide an example of car substituting for personality, in Los Angeles, if you want to convey the image that you are a fun, sports-loving guy ready for adventure, you buy a Jeep. You might also join a Road Ralley club, and you might get custom features for your Jeep. You can probably get special wheel covers, special upholstery, and that sort of thing. There is a huge business in Los Angeles for after-market customization of vehicles. It is pretty common for the average person to spend more on their car each year than they have in their savings accounts.

Obviously when the spouse from Minneapolis and the spouse from Los Angeles go shopping for a car the first time, there will be a lot of surprises.

(2) Vegetables

People from Minneapolis cannot get fresh vegetables year round, so they do not bother to try. Instead, they buy frozen vegetables and keep them in their freezers. If fresh vegetables are available, they will buy a lot of them and keep them in the refrigerator, making sure they have some ever night so that the vegetables are consumed before they go bad. Sometimes it is not possible to get out and get groceries in Minneapolis, because there's a snow storm and the roads are not clear. More often, the roads are clear, but it is just so cold out, it is not worth the hassle of grocery shopping. So, people from Minneapolis go shopping for groceries as infrequently as possible. They are big investors in Tupperware -- anything to keep those vegetables as fresh as long as possible.

People from Los Angeles are used to fresh fruit and vegetables year round. They go to the grocery store every day and buy the fresh food. They never buy frozen fruit and vegetables or even canned fruit and vegetables. Every day, some where in Los Angeles, there's a farmer's market, so the Angelinos even have the option of buying direct from the farmer. When they take their purchases home, the Angelinos put all the vegetables out on the counter. They would never put them in the refrigerator. They figure the vegetables will be eaten within 24 hours, so what is the difference. It is not unusual to walk into a Los Angeles home and see broccoli, tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce sitting out on the counter. No one forgot to put the vegetables away; the vegetables are just waiting to be made into the evening's dinner. If the spouse from Minnesota enters the house and starts putting the vegetables in the refrigerator, the spouse from Los Angeles will go out and buy more. The spouse from Los Angeles would never think to look in the refrigerator, because that is only for milk and meats and other products that need to stay cold.

Obviously the spouse from Los Angeles and the spouse from Minneapolis will have quite a time grocery shopping.

(3) Windows

The spouse from Los Angeles will walk around the house opening all the windows. The spouse from Minneapolis will walk around thehouse closing all the windows. Each will tell the other that they are worried about high utility bills. They will agree that they do not want their utility bills to be unduly high. They will engage in opposite behaviors to keep the bills down. Neither will understand why the other is doing what he/she is doing.