My article in the Australian Financial Review on powerpoint is getting a good response, there are still a lot of supporters of the old program out there.
"Presentations are one of those ubiquitous rituals of modern corporate life that have attained iconic status. But with their tendency to bore more often than they entertain or persuade, you can't help wondering about the wisdom of our slavish reliance on this twee piece of technology.
So pervasive is this dependence, that anyone who turns up to do a talk without a nicely turned out set of slides gives the impression of being under prepared or a bit of a dinosaur.
The reasons for the success of Microsoft's PowerPoint presentation software are by no means obvious. In fact, those old enough to recall the horror of the once popular after-dinner slide show, when living room walls became impromptu screens, must marvel at the triumph of its modern corporate equivalent. This triumph is all the more surprising because PowerPoint mixes the least interesting varieties of written, verbal and visual communications in ways that simply don't work. In reality, this mediocre mixture does little more than download information, often slowly and with condescension.
The words on the slides are mere notes, outlines that would once have been crafted into short reports for readers to peruse at their convenience. These slide outlines are dumbing down corporate prose because few people can write an insightful analysis in brief bullet points.
Even if we do press our ideas into this modern straitjacket, a presentation of 20 slides will contain just a few hundred words. Not many more than an FM radio bulletin, and too few to convey real information on any complex subject.
Worse still, these few hundred words are sprayed about in phrases and fragments, lacking the coherence and urgency of, say, a tightly-written radio script.
On their own, the bullet points are invariably dull and give PowerPoint presentations a dreadful sameness. If you see too many of these presentations they start to morph into each other.
Unappealing on their own, these few hundred scattered words are the backbone on which the presenter, still eager to entertain and persuade, tries valiantly to hang some compelling verbal flesh.
With their slides displayed on an enormous backdrop screen to support them, most modern presenters are confident of winging the verbal accompaniment and breathing some life and excitement back into those dreary sub-headings.
Yet, there are two problems here. Very few of us are good at speaking off-the-cuff, even with our notes on a big screen and, even if we could, the distraction of the slides is going to nobble our efforts to engage the audience.
Good communication requires concentration. But it's very hard, for presenter and audience, to sustain attention when someone is engaged in the distracting business of changing slides, checking the right slide is on the screen, and then reading or alluding to the content of each slide.
Contrast that with a great speech where the speaker has successfully integrated the framework of the argument and the enlivening decoration into a seamless whole.
The backbone of Martin Luther King's great "I have a dream" speech in 1963 was the juxtaposition of opposites - freedom and slavery, promise and reality, past and future. Nor are the integrative elements subtle.
In its 1500 words, freedom is used 21 times. But it is not boring and its argument - that the civil rights movement was the embodiment of America's historic mission to bring liberty to humanity - is immediately obvious and compelling.
At just over 200 words, Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is one of the great feats of speech-making concision. Lincoln spent a lot of effort on those few words, but he got it right and there is nothing surplus to requirements in the finished product. In those few words he defined what the American Civil War was about.
It is quite silly to imagine that speeches of this quality might have been improved by a set of accompanying slides. If you want to see what the Gettysburg Address looks like on PowerPoint have a look at http://www.norvig.com.
It is obvious the slides do not add anything by way of additional information or greater logical clarity.
Good speeches reflect the thought that has gone into their preparation, they are much more than a few dot points linked with some impromptu elaboration.
The fact that content and preparation are the critical elements in any presentation means that we ought to have more confidence in the speech and be sceptical of the PowerPoint shortcut.
One of the benefits of preparation that is lost in between the dot points and the adlibbing is the telling effect of a really good line. Churchill's "We will fight them on the beaches", Whitlam's "Well may we say", Lincoln's "Of the people, by the people, for the people", Armstrong's "One small step" and so on stay with the audience long after the speech and evoke the content of the argument or the moment.
Paul Keating was a master of the telling oneliner. Although they often seemed impromptu, speechwriter Don Watson tells us he prepared and rehearsed them. True, some like "the recession we had to have" backfired, but they are no less memorable for that. Keating was not the first to recognise the power of a well-crafted sentence. Churchill once attributed much of his success as a communicator to the deep understanding of the English sentence he acquired during his education.
We risk losing this ability to summarise our argument in a single memorable sentence as we become more reliant on the intellectually lazy approach offered by the PowerPoint template.
Although words don't work on slides some images do. If you're teaching art history, for example, it makes a lot of sense to have the pictures on the screen while you make observations about them.
A decade ago, I heard a rather dour Vatican curator explain the process of cleaning the Sistine chapel, and it would not have been anywhere near as memorable without the visual accompaniment.
Television, of course, can get away with just a few words by relying on great camera work and cutting-edge graphics. On the other hand, why anyone thinks putting the corporate livery on each slide, and some horrible examples of clipart, adds anything to the audience's experience is beyond me.
Try to make shorter speeches that focus on messages rather than information downloads, and spend more time preparing and rehearsing them.
Unbundle the PowerPoint conglomeration and talk when it's appropriate to talk, give out material to supplement the presentation if necessary, and use the slides for the genuinely visual bits like maps, charts and pictures.
It might even catch on, and one day people might respond to the inevitable "do you need a data projector?" inquiry with a bold "no, I had some time up my sleeve, so I ditched the slides and wrote a speech".