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The PowerPoint of no return

By G.D. Maxwell I don’t usually like to write about serious topics. They make my head hurt. They require facts and getting to the bottom of facts just slows down the process… and makes my head hurt.

By G.D. Maxwell

I don’t usually like to write about serious topics. They make my head hurt. They require facts and getting to the bottom of facts just slows down the process… and makes my head hurt. And, sadly, there isn’t really much a crank columnist in a smalltown newsmagazine can do about serious topics except lose readers whose heads also hurt whenever they turn to the last page and discover it’s been wasted on a serious topic and/or facts.

But this is different. Some things are just too ugly to turn away from, shrug your shoulders and move on to the next moment of silliness. Some injustices are simply too great to ignore. Some dangers cry out for, well, if not action than at least the withering discomfort of having the cold, hard light of scathing public criticism shined on them.

It’s becoming clear the world can stand the indignities heaped upon it by the likes of neoconservatives, evangelical Christians-Muslims-Jews, globalists, corporate polluters and yes, even Spongebob Squarepants. But I’m not certain how much longer the planet or any of its more delicate inhabitants can continue to deal with the soul-sapping, mind-numbing, eye-glazing, hyphen-inciting indignities visited upon us all by the ubiquitous and totally unnecessary ascendance of PowerPoint presentations.

Yes, the dirty little secret is out.

I’m pretty sure PowerPoint is the Armageddon we were all warned about when hysterical futurists issued their dire predictions about the societal dangers personal computers posed. It isn’t the crippling carpal-tunnel challenged generation spawned by addiction to first-person shooter games; it isn’t spam or porn or opportunities for extravagant riches offered by Nigerian princesses that flood out of the internet daily.

It is most definitely PowerPoint.

PowerPoint, or PP if you prefer, doesn’t make a bad presentation good. It just prolongs the agony, much like listening to a joke whose punchline is so obvious you saw it coming before the end of the first sentence. What PP does, is prove the link theorized so many years ago in a seminal study published in Toastmasters: The Journal of Public Speaking, which postulated that people who give bad presentations also read bad presentations poorly.

Now, instead of silently sitting in agony through a tedious speech, we can read the highlights – or lowlights – of a tedious speech long before the speaker ever actually gets to them. Is that progress or what?

Of course, to add a little zest, PP empowers the idea-challenged to inject such entertaining touches as animated arrows, sparkle fades and samples of Yanni tunes to an otherwise benign, if terminally dull, presentation, thus demonstrating for a whole generation of people who grew up never having to get dressed up to go to church on Sunday morning, the meaning of the phrase "adding insult to injury."

I was graphically reminded of the dangers, abuses and pitfalls of PP-tainted presentations the other night while attending what might otherwise have been a two-hour council meeting. Somewhere near the end of the third hour, while waiting for the 38 th instructive PP slide to appear on the screen, the speechifier – who shall remain nameless; consider it a personal kindness – was reduced to entertaining the audience with birdcall imitations, having run through his entire repertoire of armpit noise songs during the pauses between the first 25 slides, 18 of which were of the pointing arrow genre.

Not having attended a riveting, local demonstration of democracy inaction for quite some time – long enough ago to have forgotten all the really good stuff council does is done in their private meetings, leaving the public spectacle as short on substance as it is long on form – I was advised by someone whose job it is to always attend council meetings that the, ahem, hiccups with the evening’s PP presentation were not all that uncommon.

Had I not been told that, I would have just assumed our esteemed general manager of public works, who was manually assisting the wheezing computer running the evening’s entertainment, either didn’t know what he was doing or, more likely, was working with a union computer and undermining its efforts in the hopes it would grow frustrated and just quit entirely.

But with the new knowledge that "It happens with almost all the PP presentations," I’d just like to remind anyone contemplating bringing both the dog and pony to a show at council chambers – or anywhere else where PP dares to rear its ugly head for that matter – of this often overlooked bit of wisdom. PP slides, like the overhead projectors they replaced, fall into that potentially very helpful category known as Visual Aides. This is in direct contrast to, say, sharp sticks in the eye which fall into the unhelpful category of Visual Impairments.

A PP presentation that doesn’t work, that leaves most of the audience humming the Final Jeopardy music or picking at not-quite-ready-to-come-off scabs, has crossed the line into sharp stick in the eye territory.

So, whaddya do when this happens to you and your lovingly laboured-over PP show. Assuming you are only marginally gifted in the entertainment potential of birdcalls or armpit music, what you might want to do is quietly, but resolutely, walk over to the computer, gently close the lid, grab the heaviest object you can find and, using it, apply as much locomotive force as you possibly can right on the conveniently placed Dell target. Then return to the lectern and GET TO THE POINT!

There was a point, wasn’t there?

Possibly not. Far too often, PP itself, using some powerful mesmerizing force astrophysicists are just beginning to glimpse the nature of at the far corners of the universe but which adherents of the Intelligent Design movement simply refer to as God, becomes the point. What may have started out as a good story, pitch for funding, budget presentation, twelve-step How to Kick PowerPoint Addiction show, turns into an exercise in slide building. "More slides, we need more slides," it screams at what was once its creator but is now its slave during the wee hours of sleep deprivation.

And more slides it receives. In the ultimate irony, the slides become the point. Whatever the original point was is lost in a merry-go-round of slides and fades and the intelligent being, the speaker, is reduced to a narrator who, all too often, simply reads the slides.

What’s to be done?

Short of banning PP presentations in all public places – business would grind to a halt without them – I believe we should turn all PP shows into interactive, multimedia entertainment. Whenever you find yourself sitting through another butt-numbing speech where the speaker has forgotten rule 1(a): DON’T READ THE SLIDES, IDIOT!, and is, like a hypnotized simpleton, reading the slides, we should all read along with him or her… aloud.

It wouldn’t solve the problem, but it’ll give us all time to work on our birdcalls.