I still remember the first day I learned to dread the power point presentation. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve seen good ones. I have at times been well pleased to take in a well designed power point presentation. If only I could have more of those days, and fewer of the kind that I have so often grown to expect.
I was sitting in a lecture hall many years ago listening to a colleague do a training for the rest of the faulty at our college. She was trying to teach us something about assessment techniques for accreditation, but the fact is that this particular colleague had nothing to say about the topic, and she was painfully slow in the way she was not saying it. The overall effect was a lot like a sedative and one of Pink Floyd’s longer and slower songs. Every point this woman made began with a new slide that added a phrase or quick sentence. She would stop talking, click a button, wait to see the new phrase appear and then pause long enough for us to read the phrase ourselves (twice). She would then read the phrase and give us a little more time to let it sink in. In a rare moment of personal empowerment, our illustrious lecturer would add a comment or two about the phrase before moving onto the next one. Mostly, she just let us take in the power of each individual bullet point. So, I’m sitting there watching this and trying desperately not run screaming from the room as I study the slide-show and wonder why I hated it so much. Of course training days are often a painful experience, but this was a special kind of heck, and the source of my particular sorrow on that day wasn’t immediately apparent. Eventually, I come to a realization.
It’s her outline!
What my colleague had chosen to pass off as a power-point presentation was nothing more than the outline for her speech, exactly the sort of outline we had all learned to write in our Freshmen Composition and Speech classes. There it was, unfolding there on the screen, one line at a time, as if it were some sad librarian’s version of dramatic tension.
Far from enhancing the presentation, this visual was slowing the speaker down and enabling her to avoid the responsibility even to explain the connections between the points of her talk. The speaker didn’t need to decide how each individual bullet point related to the major themes of her discussion; all she needed to do was read them at us. The visual served to occupy our attention and help us to forget that she had crammed a whole 5 minutes of information into an hour-long presentation. In effect, the presenter had looked into the heart of her software and found a new and improved means of bluffing.
…Would that this was a unique experience!
This technique also seemed to lend an ontological claim to the individual bullet points. Things that a person might just say offhand, or as part of a larger argument often seem to acquire a objectivity all their own, standing up there on a screen. A list of bullet points might contain causes, effects, and side comments to a larger heading, all quite unmarked in the visual. The verbal presentation did nothing to clarify matters. I grew slowly to realize the presenter did not herself know exactly how each sub-point of her presentation related to the main themes. She knew only that the topics traveled in a pack together, so to speak, and she wanted us to know that too. The visual solved this problem by telling us exactly how each point related to the next.
This was the secret of the power-point visual, it lent the illusion of mystic substance to each individual point while undermining the need to explore rational connections between the. Each individual point on the screen in front of us looked terribly important in its own right, certainly more important than the explanations that connect each point to the others. Those connections didn’t appear on the screen. the bullet points did. They mattered more.
…and critical thinking wept!