The Case Against PowerPoint

I'm thinking we may soon turn a corner in the long battle against a pernicious affliction. No, I'm not talking about terrorism or unemployment or H1N1. I'm talking about PowerPoint. Microsoft estimated a few years ago, according to Hilari Weinstein, that 30 million PowerPoint presentations are inflicted on unsuspecting and largely undeserving Americans every day. One might be forgiven for assuming this means, more precisely, every business day, until one visits enough houses of worship to see that a great many men and women of the cloth have gotten into the PowerPoint act as well. Which is ironic, since I'm fairly certain that orientation sessions in hell also use it.

The case against PowerPoint is long and familiar and frequently turns on the ineptitude of the user rather than anything inherently evil in the software itself, though famed data presentation guru Edward Tufte says the devil is indeed in the machine.

PowerPoint is digital Valium for user and viewer alike, calming the fears of nervous presenters while assuring the audience that instead of awkward human interaction, a comfortable somnolence awaits. And if Microsoft's estimates are valid, we are indeed overmedicated.

The reason I think we may turn a corner, however, is that PowerPoint has become high art. You can no longer roll up into that meeting with white text on a royal blue screen and a sprinkling of bizarre stick figure people engaged in seeming acts of commerce, and expect anyone to remember anything about your presentation except that it was godawful. Think you're clever because you figured out how to embed a Youtube clip? Think again. The real pros have tons of embedded items, and can pick and choose among them with the brush of a finger to make their points in interactive fashion with their audience.

PowerPoint is high stakes now, and if you don't bring your A-game to that symposium or business seminar you are likely to get snickered right off the thin-carpeted dais. And heaven help you if you have to follow someone who spun his presentation from the golden stuff of Apple's Keynote software.

It's a conundrum, and more executives I know are going old school rather than compete. They're rolling up the white screens and turning up the lights and talking directly to people with just plain words. Too embarrassed to use their weak-sister slides, they've made it a point of pride not to use slides at all. It's like the teenager who gets a Buick Skylark from Dad and decides instead to be one of those quasi-cool scooter kids. Slides? We don't need no stinking slides.

I know some executives, on the other hand, who are doubling down in the PowerPoint wars. They've revamped their internal corporate creative teams, or even hired full-time assistants whose job consists entirely of constructing artful multi-media presentations. The game has changed, and unless you control a lot of resources or happen to be twenty-something and in possession of a Mac, you're better off incorporating magic tricks into your monologue than trot out a bunch of tired slides that are the business equivalent of a bad toupee.

As in so many things, in other words, if you're neither powerful nor young and clever, you'd best be in possession of a whole lot of cool. Which is bad news for your average corporate presenter, if I'm any judge of horse flesh. But good news for the rest of us, because with their crutches gone, maybe fewer people will have the courage to call long meetings. And that, my fellow PowerPoint victims, almost certainly has to be good for America.