December 19, 2005

From Visual Aid to Literary Genre to Vacuous Slides

Neddie Jingo on American Street and PZ Myers at Pharyngula are discussing PowerPoint, the bad, the good and the misleading. Both posts are worth reading and digesting. But I want to jump off on something PZ said,

I remember when a great hour-long talk would have 10 or 15 data slides; now, it's 60, 70, 80 PowerPoint blips that you motor through as fast as you can read them off.

What I am going to do here is tell an "I think" story. It is what I think happened with regard to visual aids to oral presentation. What follows should not be confused with a documented history but it is based on my own experience of giving presentations to large and small groups over the last 40 years or so.

When I began giving and listening to oral presentations it was often helpful to the audience to provide an illustration or two to help them understand the less intuitive portions of the presentation. This was mechanically quite hard to do unless the point could be made with 35 mm pictures. A chart or graph was a nightmare. It had to be drawn on paper and photographed or worse, drawn directly onto a plastic transparency for overhead projection. Sometimes one had to cutout colored plastic shapes then use lettering stickers and literally glue these to the transparency. The mechanics forced one to choose carefully what one wanted to show.

Remember, these "slides" were aids in an oral presentation. In industry, companies had graphics departments, one of whose jobs was to help executives make these slides. So, not only were they a pain in the ass neck, they were costly. And of course, technology improved, so over time, they became less and less a pain in the neck but it was still hard enough that they required planning and selection.

In some disciplines like archeology, it was, and still is, common to show lots of pictures usually without captions. The captions are filled in by the speaker as the picture is described and put in the context of the talk. I remember an ASOR meeting years ago where one speaker was giving a rather theoretical talk so he chose to show pictures of flowers and made absolutely no reference to them during the talk. It was actually quite effective.

Once I gave a talk using about ten slides. A month or so later, one of my colleges asked if he could borrow my slides. I mistakenly agreed. He used them to make just the opposite point that I had made. It's not that my slide were that bad. It's rather that they were that good!

Anyway, the slides were no more than aids in an oral presentation. That is until someone, I know not who, but likely in the mid 1970s, asked the speaker if he or she would provide them with a set of the slides. And while I think the request was evil enough, even more evil was the fact that the speaker agreed. And at that moment, everything changed. Once it became necessary to provide the audience with your slides, your slides had to stand alone, divorced forever, from the presentation they were intended to illustrate. They had morphed from an aid to speaking into a literary genre in their own right. It took a while for the metamorphous to be completed. But once speakers came to realize that members of the audience would use these slides, instead of their notes or recordings, to re-present the material, speakers had to make sure they were "correct:" not just correct as visual aids, but correct as a representation of the talk itself. They became the presentation. As such, facilitated by tools like PowerPoint, the slides became the presentation.

At that point, something even worse happened. The speakers, having to make sure that the slides contained everything they wanted to say began to find it easier to just read the slides to their audience as if the whole lot were a bunch of illiterate boobs. Well that made for some truly awful presentations!

So the pedagogues started teach us how to make better presentations. And among the things they told us was not to put too many points on a slide. As I remember, the magic number was four "bullets" per slide with no more than three points in any one presentation. So now we have a literary genre whose formal structure revolves around a maximum of three points presented in sets of four "bullets" per slide but we still need to make sure the whole thing can standalone.

And the result is the very thing that has Neddie Jingo upset.

"Microsoft’s most toxic contribution to our culture, that bellwether of the whistling void that is the life of the mind in the Twenty-First Century: the PowerPoint deck."

No Neddie, I think it was the person who asked for a copy of slides for an oral presentation and the person who agreed. Microsoft only provided the technology to make it easy.

Posted by Duane Smith at December 19, 2005 2:10 PM | Read more on Odds and Ends |

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