Wednesday, 18 April 2007

PowerPointless

New research has found that PowerPoint, the ubiquitous computer software for business presentations, is a waste of time. Martin Waller welcomes its demise, while Michael Gove praises the power of oratory

At some stage, around the 38th minute, you were tempted to pinch yourself to ensure that you were still awake, and if not, that you had not slipped off into some hell devised solely for corporate man.

“We are DETERMINED . . . that we OPERATE . . . one of the most ACTIVE . . . and CUSTOMER-ORIENTED . . . delivery systems . . . for HIGH-VALUE fast-moving consumer goods . . . and that we RETAIN . . . a COMMANDING lead . . . over our COMPETITORS . . .”

The speaker was one of our most respected industrialists, whom I had better not name. The year was some time in the early 1990s. The style of delivery was more suited to a mass rally for a Third World dictator. The event was the presentation of his organisation’s annual financial results.

The organisation makes . . . again, shall we just say the sort of consumer goods you and I use every day. We had already LEARNT, as evidenced by an eye-straining array of coloured graphics, that the MARGINS in the grommets division had been LEVERAGED by a FULL THREE PERCENTAGE POINTS, while TURNOVER in bent widgets . . .

Enough. The whole bloody thing took up 55 minutes of my life, as I can testify, because my watch was easily the most fascinating object in the room. Every single utterance, every boast, every statistic, was accompanied on the screen behind him with a written repetition on his PowerPoint (the curse of business presentations launched by Microsoft in 1988).

After a cursory question and answer session — what more could even the most dedicated fact junkie possibly want to know? — we filed away, shellshocked, to be handed a copy of said presentation, in case any tiny aspect, any inessential detail, any jot and tittle of his organisation’s performance over the past year, had eluded us.

It was all made possible by what was then the latest technology, the PowerPoint presentation. It is an unacknowledged rule of emerging technology that the easier you make it to generate product, the more rubbish gets generated by said technology.

In the days when faxes were quite hard to set up, with a funny revolving roller that the paper had to be fixed around, you sent only essential faxes. Today, faxes are so easy to send that no one uses them any more. This is because the fax machine is permanently clogged up. And anyway, everyone uses e-mails and attachments.

Now e-mails are so easy, so omnipresent, that . . . well, you’ll have seen the results in your e-mail box. And don’t get me started on mobile phones.

It was the sheer ease of filling up his PowerPoint with so many facts and figures that allowed Sir An . . . our man to go on, at quite such a length, about the margins in the grommet division etc. Had he been restricted to pen and paper, or to those flip-over charts beloved of polytechnic lecturers, he would have been severely curtailed. The sheer effort of filling in each page, even if carried out in some basement by a team of corporate slaves, would have required a shorter version. And his presentation would in any event have been mercifully invisible to at least half his audience.

Instead he, or more likely one of the slaves, entered it all into Microsoft Windows with full-colour graphics so it could be regurgitated at length on a huge screen.

Now, research at an Australian university has proved that PowerPoint and the human animal are not the best of collaborators. Apparently, evolving on the savannah on a diet of half-rotted ox and at constant risk from sabre-toothed tigers did not provide us with brains properly wired to read and take in information that comes at you in a pincer movement, as the spoken word and as a series of letters, lines and graphs on a screen. It is the end, they say, for the PowerPoint.

The research, from the University of New South Wales, suggests that we process information best in verbal or written form, but not in both simultaneously. As so often, it has taken the best efforts of brainy academics to prove what most of us instinctively knew. Trying to follow what someone is saying while watching the same words on a screen is the equivalent of riding a bicycle along a crowded train. It offers the appearance of making extra progress but is actually rather impractical.

For our ape-like ancestors, it was either chowing down on the ox or watching for the sabre-tooth. Multitasking was inadvisable. This may even be why we evolved in groups, with tasks shared out. That or the sheer boringness of the average savannah.

One City communications specialist, who was untypically unwilling to be quoted by name, probably because his clients still insist on PowerPoint presentations, puts it thus: “It provides a comforter, really. It would be more sensible just to talk.

“Look at David Cameron, when he first became leader of the Tory Party. He just got up on stage and spoke beautifully, without any notes whatsoever. But not everyone can do that. With PowerPoint, people feel they can get away with practising less, if they have the words in front of them.”

The presentation also encourages screens full of as many words or data as can be crammed on, without any chance that they can all be appreciated or even read in time. Advertisers learnt a long time ago that the longer and more boring their ads, the less they worked. Corporate man, probably because he evolved in an environment dominated by meaningless management buzz-words and claptrap, has never quite grasped this.

Perhaps the only legitimate use is in the production of a series of paper pages as an aide memoire to a proper presentation or for a one-to-one briefing. This has occasioned an odd linguistic shift. “Now, if you will just have a look at the next slide.” No, it’s a piece of paper. Been around for centuries, you know.

Even here, there are pitfalls. I recall many years ago being deeply impressed at being invited to a private room at an expensive London hotel to meet another distinguished industrialist. Now, when two people are gathered together to break bread, there is a tacit assumption that this is an occasion for social intercourse, the equivalent of our primate ancestors huddled together picking off one another’s ticks. And we had not previously met.

As the tricolore salad was cleared away, his barely touched, I realised why he had been so keen on a private room. “I wonder,” he said, removing from his briefcase a familiar plastic-fronted folder, “if I could just show you how we have leveraged the margins at our grommets division . . .”

Professor John Sweller, of the University of New South Wales, says: “The use of the PowerPoint presentation has been a disaster. It should be ditched.” If only.

— Martin Waller

Why speechmaking is still the way to persuade

In the latest issue of The Spectator, the magazine’s political editor Fraser Nelson describes being invited to a “wonderfully conspiratorial” dinner at a London hotel by the Home Secretary. Nelson is properly circumspect, as a lobby correspondent should be, about what went on. But he does reveal that the evening was blighted by the presence of “the most unwelcome guest of all” — an overhead projector.

There are few words that have a greater capacity to chill than “I’ll just take you through this on PowerPoint” and thSite is currently unavailable .Please come back later

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