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From Clifford Stoll, High Tech Heretic, ©1999  371.334sto

The Plague of PowerPoint

Perhaps you've not yet seen a PowerPoint talk. You soon will.

Imagine a boring slide show. Now add lots of generic, irrelevant, and pyrotechnic graphics. What have you got? A boring slide show, complete with irrelevant whizbang graphics.

Ten years ago, these computer graphics shows seemed futuristic. Today, they're hackneyed. PowerPoint is the enemy of a good talk.

Presentation software goes under several names: Power-Point, Persuasion, Presentation, or Freelance. Promoted as the up and coming way to reach an audience, it's used by technical speakers, sales folk, instructors, lawyers, and, naturally, politicians.

These programs let anyone make transparencies or displays, complete with clipart, fancy backgrounds, and colorful charts. Used with a video projector, your audience can watch text scroll onto the screen accompanied by animated sprites and dancing corporate logos.

Used to be, you'd watch someone stand before an audience and stammer through a talk, cued by index cards and an occasional transparency. The audience scribbled notes and tried not to yawn.

All that's changed, thanks to the convergence of personal computers, video projectors, and laser printers. Today, the lecturer fiddles with a computer, focuses the projector, and adjusts his microphone. He pushes a few buttons and up pops a perfectly laid-out computer graphics display. New graphics appear on command, usually as bullet points perfectly lined up in columns. The audience has been given paper copies of the show in advance, so they read the notes and try not to yawn.

Almost nobody likes to stand up and talk to an audience. Techies, accustomed to dealing with computers rather than people, are especially shy. So naturally they latch onto anything which will insulate them from this experience. In public speaking, PowerPoint is the coward's choice.

Once, foibles, yarns, and a few jokes sympathetically linked speaker to audience. Now, everyone's either staring at the video screen or reading their handouts. The speaker becomes an incidental accessory behind the lectern.

Not that the speaker cares. He's too busy fiddling with buttons and watching the screen. With his back to the audience, and orator knows what the next slide will say, as does the audience. Should he forget a line or head off on a tangent, the program prompts him back to the prepared talk.

Result: a predictable, pre-programmed, pre-produced lecture, devoid of any human content. The audience might as well watch a videotape.

Sure, meetings are notoriously tedious. And anything that can jazz 'em up is welcome. But PowerPoint and its cousins seem destined to make meetings even more boring.

This assumes that the electronics go right. If the computer hangs up, the software crashes, or the video projector flakes out, the speaker's cooked. He'll likely fumble with the cables or call for a technician. All of which wastes five or ten minutes and incompletely derails his talk. I've watched it happen.

Oh, I admire the technical capabilities of these programs. With the right hookup, you can link to a Web site or copy graphs from a spreadsheet. You can include sound effects, cartoons, and clipart. But a hundred people have gathered to connect with a speaker, not to watch a light show.

What motivates an audience? Emotion. Passion. Fire. A sense of warmth, excitement, shared adventure. A PowerPoint-driven meeting delivers chilly, pre-programmed video graphics. You see graphs, numbers, and bullet charts. But dancing sprites and flashing logos can't inspire zeal, loyalty, outrage, or a clarion call to action.

The computer-generated graphics draw the crowd's attention. Rather than watching you, the audience gazes at the fonts and animation. They're already holding your handouts, so there's no reason to take notes or intently listen for your important points. Indeed, since everything's on the screen and in the handouts, there's not much reason to listen to what you say.

We remember the performance, not a font or logo. We want to identify with the speaker, but it's hard to overcome the sterility of the computer graphics. When was the last time you saw an inspiring multimedia show? When was the last meeting where you said, "Hey, those glitzy graphics sure impressed me!"

I can imagine Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, sporting a video projector and PowerPoint. He'd show a graphic of eighty- seven calendars flipping by, fading into an animation of Washington crossing the Delaware. Highlighted on his bullet chart would be the phrases "A new nation," "Conceived in liberty," and "All men are created equal."

If only PowerPoint were confined to computer conferences, where it would just put techies to sleep. Alas, it's now showing up in schools. I sat through an American history class dulled by PowerPoint. The high school students sat glassy-eyed as their teacher read the text rolling up the screen. "Warren Harding was the twenty-ninth President and was born in Marion, Ohio. The five most important features of his administration were . . ." Deadly.

Kids latch onto this new way to slack off. A high school student from Wilsonville, Oregon, writes this ungrammatical analysis: "I wasn't doing crap for a presentation that I had to do in class. But I still received a good grade because it was on a Powerpoint stack that took me a half hour to make. There was others in the class that worked their butts off to memorize their presentation, and here am I up there just reading off my presentation that was being projected on the screen."

So it looks as if PowerPoint is fast becoming the replacement for the educational slide show. Just about as relevant, just about as interesting.

Want to make a splash at your next public talk? Know your material so well that you can speak off the cuff, without computer, laser pointer, or video projector. Scribble your important points on a chalkboard and emphasize them with your voice. Face your audience, not that computer monitor.

Throw out that tired clipart and the cliches about the explosion of technology, the challenge of the future, and the crisis in education. Let me hear your voice, not a pre-programmed sound effect. Show me your ideas, not someone else's template.
Amaze me with your stories. Thrill me with your experiences. Astound me with your brilliance. Convince me with your passion. Show excitement. Intrigue. Anything--just don't bore me with another computer graphics presentation.

I can't help mentioning the Evangelical Church of PowerPoint. At St.]ohn's Lutheran Church in Oxnard, California, worshippers face a multimedia video screen above the altar. Complemented by a thirty-two-channel sound system, PowerPoint projects Picasso-style caricatures onto the screen, along with the high points of the sermon. It can project Internet video clips along with reminders of next week's potluck dinner. And the $160,000 system probably saves several hundred dollars' worth of hymnals.

This is no new-age church--St. John's is a member of the conservative Lutheran Missouri Synod. Nor is it some isolated foolishness: Other churches are quickly installing computer video systems, including the Camarillo Jubilee Church.

Pastor Mark Beyer says that video projection of his message lets him reach out to the congregation's ears and eyes. "We're just trying to use the tools of the present," he says. "I'd like to use Smell-o-Vision if I could."

Today's omnipresent tool is the Internet: I wonder if Pastor Beyer will develop a Web site where you click on an icon and effortlessly receive enlightenment. No need to show up at church at all.

One Sunday, Pastor Beyer asked his congregation to raise their hands and sing to God. Then he turned and joined his parishioners in looking up at the giant computer display. If God had retained the same sense of outrage he displayed in Daniel 5:25, they'd have seen the flashing message "Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin." Instead, the venerated PowerPoint screen answered the supplicants with the message: "For thou, Lord, art high above all Earth. I exalt thee."

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