A Blast from the Past…and the Tyranny of PowerPoint

One of the finest live presentations I have ever witnessed featured a man and a microphone. It was in 1989, the debut event of the CorelWORLD User Conference, the precursor to the PowerPoint Live User Conference. John Meyer, the president of Ventura Software, was the keynote speaker. He did not speak from a script, yet it was obvious that he knew what he wanted to say. He began at a podium, but frequently moved to the edge of the stage where nothing separated him from his audience. He was always looking into someone’s eyes, and regularly journeyed from one side of the room to another.

He spoke of the company’s beginnings, but resisted all temptations to proper the dreadful “corporate background” speech. He shared with us through anecdotes how customers had influenced the product, but did not give in to the air-puffed “we are responsive to your needs” cliches. And he shared with us his goals for the software, but never once used words like “proactive,” “vision,” “innovative,” or any other buzzword that sounds good but means nothing at all.

The crowd of 300 was utterly riveted. They watched his every move, and hung on his every word. All the focus was on John, as the lights were up and there were no multimedia distractions behind him.

One year later, Xerox had taken over the software. Instead of entrepreneur John Meyer giving the opening keynote address, it was corporate journeyman-turned-president Larry Gerhardt. He began with a corporate backgrounder, offered his own resume, talked about how Xerox would be responsive to our needs, and spoke of being proactive and innovative. For the attendees at this conference, this wasn’t a speech; it was a punishment.

It was bad enough that this address was everything that conference goers didn’t care about, and delivered with the energy and charisma of a potato. What made it worse were the slides—those dreadful slides. Instead of working the room, Gerhardt was working the projector, fiddling with transparencies and trying not to put his face in the light.

This leads to a question that has been nagging me for the last two years: Where have all the good presenters gone? Because I refuse to believe that there aren’t any left, there must be something else going on, and I’ll tell you what it is:

Presentation software

The tyranny of presentation software is what it does to skilled speakers. It takes good speakers, able to carry an audience with their voice and their language, and it dummies them down.


I wrote these words in October 1998. It is both entertaining and troubling to see how far and how little we have progressed in the span of a decade. You can read the entire article at

http://www.betterppt.com/editorial/archive/98oct.htm

What do you think — have we learned anything? Are we better off today? Or just more endowed with technology and toys…?

1 Comment

  1. Mike Bauer on Oct 8, 2010 at 5:28 am

    Great article. I believe the issue is that presenters lose focus on what is important. It’s not the presentation that is important – it’s the audience. The right presenter could engage an audience with a bag of trash and Nickelodeon Gack under the proper circumstances. It’s about connection, it’s about people, it’s not about the screen. Maya Angelou:

    “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”