Back in July, I ranted about Fractal Presentations. This is the idea that really complex subjects, like the ones you and I deal with everyday, lose meaning and content when reduced to two-dimensional PowerPoint slides.
Having just finished two weeks of conferences and workshops, from Santa Fe to Nice, I am more confident than ever that we need to find a better way to exchange complex memes between humans than bullets points and slides. I heard some amazing presentations from biologists, physicists, economists, and computer scientists over the last two weeks, and the saving grace in each case was the presenter, not the slides. The slides were like a Damocles sword hanging over each presenter, menacing them every time they adapted their content to the interest and aptitude of the room. All of these speakers, including Nobel laureates, Harvard professors, etc., are otherwise brilliant and free people, but they were enslaved by the tyranny of PowerPoint and the Socratic deductive linearity implicit in it's use.
I felt this hot flash of anger when I realized that each poor soul was probably trying to manipulate the picture formatting option in PowerPoint at 35000 feet (as I was just doing about 10 minutes ago, pointedly) the night before, en route to the conference. "Hey Einstein! Can you do me a favor and kern this font so it fits with the template?"
What is the opportunity-cost on each of these individual's time to boil down years of study, libraries of nuance and meaning, into ten or twenty or a hundred slides? How much more productive as a society, as a civilization, could we be if we got all the PowerPoint time back? Smart people will always have illustrative material to back up their discussion, but you never really know a priori what a room (a presentation audience) will hold. By creating linear, bulleted PowerPoint slides, you are forced to talk at your audience, not with them. If you've ever worked with a type-A personality that could talk but not listen, you can appreciate how little exchange and consensus occurred.
Not to channel Edward Tufte, Garr Reynolds and Seth Godin, but a PowerPoint-driven-culture will evade the important details, as any NASA engineer can tell you. It also emboldens presenters to speak longer than they have to (e.g. "I need a title slide, agenda slide, Q&A slide.....oh, five or six transition slides.......snazzy slide transitions........wait, what was I presenting about again?"). I know that I have witnessed a number of long presentations over the years that needed to be about five minutes long, and five-minute talks that I wished had gone on for hours.
One day in 2000, I decided that I was going to abandon the standard convention of bringing a large slide deck when conducting 'executive briefings' for my firm in their executive briefing center. I walked in, and simply spoke with the customers about what they wanted to speak about. Occasionally, if needed, I would bring up a slide that had a topology or graphic that was easier to show than explain. In the span of a few months, the evaluation ratings I received back had gone up by 20%. They wanted to exchange information, not be blindly talked at.
There really has got to be a better way. 3D visualization environments, like immersive worlds? Simple speech? Someone please hit me in the head with a clue-by-four, I beg you.
P.S. There was an audible sigh of relief from the audience when Tom Standage, the business editor for the Economist, announced that he was imposing a ban on PowerPoint and that we'd have insightful round-tables and panel discussions instead.