May 2nd, 2009 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

Rely on projected PowerPoint or even worse embedded video and you have a good chance of looking like a bozo. I was front row and snorting several times in two places over the past two days as hopeful presenters were reduced to squeezing their big red noses.

The amusing aspect in both cases is that the folk standing up were fairly bright. They had some decent content. They were just defeated by the technologies. Mac or PC made no difference, nor did PowerPoint  or video.

Otherwise professional speakers illustrated what presentation god Edward Tufte described in a 2003 piece, PowerPoint is Evil, in Wired:

At a minimum, a presentation format should do no harm. Yet the PowerPoint style routinely disrupts, dominates, and trivializes content. Thus PowerPoint presentations too often resemble a school play -very loud, very slow, and very simple.

Sure, it’s easy to find I-hate-PowerPoint sites and I have my own aversion to people reading slides jammed with words when the audience has long since finished digesting the content. Yet, that was not the most obvious difficulty at both the Investigative Reporting/Freedom of Information workshop yesterday and the Slow Food Boston presentation today.

Some very nice people with some worthy information taxed the audiences severely. They had not tested their shows, either software or hardware in the setting. As happens all too often, video, sound or computer connections failed. The reliance on technology was yet again misplaced. It was compounded by the addition of the newish media video, sound and online material.

In the auditorium at the Boston Globe,  the workshop folk were fairly comical in their serial failures. The room has all the warmth and intimacy of a college survey-course class with a deep well up front for the professor. The telescoped focus on the speakers made the delays and blunder all the more obvious and intense.

Hot-shot Salon correspondent Mark Benjamin was one. He doesn’t need self-esteem classes, so he probably doesn’t think there was any problem, much less that anything was his fault. The showpiece of his session on getting information from the military was a grainy and often dark video shot with a helmet camera in combat. That was understandably of poor quality.

Yet he and some troubleshooters had the devil of a time getting the sound to play. The audio was even more important than the visuals.

Fumbling more were Matt Kauffman (Hartford Courant), Joe Bergantino (veteran TV news guy and now at Boston U.),  and Judy Rakowsky (free-lance after 14 years at the Globe). There were videos that wouldn’t start or those that started with no sound or that ran with one of two sound tracks audible or ran at ear-bleed volume. There were the wrong websites. There was the inability to use hotlinks in Word.

It was a technology clown car.

The delays piled up…10…20…30 minutes. The audience squirmed, giggled, and occasionally commiserated. Too many of us have given an off-course presentation and we’ve all attended them.

Then today at the West Roxbury library, a lone Slow Food lady, events volunteer  Nicole Nacamuli was caught. She’s nice. The library staff are nice. Together, they just couldn’t get their projector and her PC to put the signal and PowerPoint on the screen.

As at the workshop,  the audience watched as otherwise competent people bumbled and failed. After much delay, she admitted she had only yet another PowerPoint show. She had notes and hit the podium to do it the old fashioned way.

So, as I frequently ask my sons, what can we learn from this?

Technology Slavery

Most obvious is that hardware and software have a lot of ways to fail. The projector can fail. It’s $200 lamp can blow with no handy replacement. Your room or building can lose power. Your laptop drive can crash.

Software can be more insidious. Particularly if you’ve incorporated video with sound or count on accessing an online server, there are many ways for failure and only one for flawless presentation. Working well on your desk with built-in speakers is not the same at in a big room with someone else’s projector and sound hardware.

The laptops and projectors and sound systems are almost ubiquitous. We like to think they just work and keep on working. Yet, think back to how many times you’ve been in a room when something went wrong.

So, we can learn not to use the technologies unless they really add to the presentation of the content. We can learn to have an alternate way of delivering the show, as the Slow Food woman did. Perhaps most basic, we can learn to be there in advance and test our laptop and show with the visual and audio system in the room.

Eyes AND Ears

My PowerPoint and other presentation rants include, “Do not read your slides!” If the only thing you can do is recite your bullet points verbatim, give ’em a handout and don’t bore them. You can be pretty sure they can all read on their own.

At the FOI workshop, too many speakers relied on squint-making slides with lists of URLs or other resources. Those belong online or in a handout.

After being in too many presentations, I found the memorable ones never, ever use crowded slides. Instead, they put ideas up in a few words or a graphic. Then they use the slide to open the glorious box of related ideas and facts. Oral is the operative word.

On the other end, Tufte‘s best work can present elaborate and analytic material brilliantly, sometimes even with presentation software. Most of have never had his resources, much less his keen design understanding. We simply can’t wow with brilliance.

What we can do is talk to the slides.  A graphic or phrase on a slide will give the audience something to watch will you spin your magic web of words, data and concepts. They’ll love you for it, particularly if you make the real presentation available online or on paper.


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