“Can you just knock me up a couple of slides on that?” are words that I dread. If you’ve ever seen me present you’ll know I’m of the “seemingly random series of images” school of PowerPoint, and I’m pretty certain that someone asking me for a couple of slides isn’t looking for a collection of family snapshots. Producing meaningful content for other people and their audiences it’s something I find remarkably hard to do.
In my childhood in the seventies and eighties I have vivid memories of my father producing slides in the pre-PC era. It was a seemingly annual process (he was an academic, producing his annual lecture series I assume) and a convoluted exercise of taking photos of Letraset layouts. For anyone under the age of about 40, Letraset will make absolutely no sense at all.
But then along came tools like Harvard Graphics and PowerPoint, and the rise of the PC (and then cheaper projectors and eventually cheap big flat screens) and now the only barrier to producing a wonderful presentation is that of imagination. Which appears to be about 100 feet tall and studded with spikey bullet points.
The problem, it seems, is that we have substituted visual aides for an on-screen content authoring tool. PowerPoint has leeched from being a tool to produce things to be presented to being the only commonly available tool that can produce something that can be consumed effectively on a landscape format screen.
And so increasingly “knock me up some slides” means “produce me a summary that I can talk through in front of other people, but can probably be consumed in its own right”. And the problem I have with that is that if there is enough content to be self-describing then the content can be hellishly boring to sit through. Or that “I want it on one slide” leads to 4 point fonts unreadable at any level of magnification. And don’t get me started on consuming most too-busy corporate PowerPoint on a mobile phone…
PowerPoint has become a chameleon tool. It’s comparatively rarely used to perform the task it was designed to do. It’s filled a niche of document creation that words processing documents generally no longer perform. And it leads to dreadfully dull meetings (and even worse, catatonic sales presentations at conferences).
I’ve ploughed this furrow before. The latest whizz-bang tool is the answer! Prezi, Sway or whatever it is that the cool kids are using. Actually, though, the answer probably lies as much in new skills that people need to develop to communicate in a Digital era. Questions like:
Who is your audience?
What is the message that you are trying to deliver?
Where will they be?
How will they consume your content?
How can you extend the conversation?
And from that you can start to describe your content and the channels that you need to use. Channel strategies might seem overkill, but welcome to the complex world of modern communicating, a world more complicated than “knocking up a few slides”.