This story is from PowerPointless, an episode of Seriously...on BBC Radio 4. It was presented by Ian Sansom and produced by Conor Garrett. To listen to more episodes of Seriously..., please click here. Adapted by Sarah Keating.
At some point in their career, everyone will find themselves sat in a darkened room, eyes squinting at a large white screen in front of them, blinking, as slide after slide whizzes past.
Microsoft PowerPoint is the world’s most ubiquitous presentation tool. Some figures suggest that this all-conquering presentation software is installed on more than a billion computers worldwide and that there may be up to a staggering 30 million PowerPoint presentations created every day.
There may be up to a staggering 30 million PowerPoint presentations created every day
Some users are such passionate devotees they can’t abandon it – even when it comes to managing their free time.
Recent graduate Ben Velzian was swiping through profiles on Tinder and was asked out on a date. While trying to decide where they should meet, Velzian sent his prospective date a PowerPoint presentation full of options of things to do. “I didn’t give him any warning or anything which is perhaps why he didn’t take it in the way I’d expected… he didn’t say anything, he just blocked me,” Velzian says.
So there’s no denying it’s an addictive, powerful tool – but is it past its sell-by-date, as some critics suggest?
‘Billions and billions’
It emerged from software company Forethought Inc., a Silicon Valley hothouse, in the 1980s. The program, initially named Presenter, was first released – on the Apple Macintosh – in 1987. Bob Gaskins was the man behind it.
“I knew in the early 80s that there were as many as a billion, a thousand million presentation slides being made per year just in America,” Gaskins says, “but they were all made by hand and almost nobody was using computers to do so.
Here was a huge application worth billions and billions of dollars a year that could be done on computers – Bob Gaskins
“It was clear to me that here was a huge application worth billions and billions of dollars a year that could be done on computers as soon as there was a revolution in the kinds of computers that we had.”
Gaskins was onto something, but it was a hard sell at the time. The software wouldn’t run on any existing personal computers. Anyone wanting to use it had to buy a new machine.
Even so, people bought personal computers for the first time in order to be able to use PowerPoint, says Wired magazine journalist and tech writer Russell Davies.
“The cost of the computer plus the PowerPoint software was less than what they were spending annually on making slides.”
Democratising the workplace
Davies explains that before PowerPoint, people used slides, overhead projectors and acetate films to convey information to groups – but anyone creating a presentation had to send away to get their materials made. It took a long time to do, was difficult to make changes and because it was so expensive, only the most senior people in an organisation got to do it.
“PowerPoint,” Davies says, “made it possible for everyone in an organisation to stand up and say their piece.”
But while PowerPoint revolutionised and democratised the way we work, it also had another unexpected result.
Around the same time as PowerPoint was gaining popularity, middle management was becoming massively criticised, says Matthew Fuller, professor of cultural studies at Goldsmiths at the University of London.
Fuller suggests there’s a connection: because PowerPoint let more people share their ideas, it exposed the failings of middle management and inadvertently led to an exodus of people from these roles, he says. “Perhaps their ideas could be seen for the trivia they were, to some extent.”
Needs more slides
PowerPoint has empowered us – bringing creativity into offices and classrooms and has helped turn us all into presenters – but it’s also been accused of over-simplifying ideas and distracting us from clear thinking.
Sarah Kaplan is a management professor and ethnographer at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Part of her job is to observe people as they work. She has noticed that, rather than people asking for new analysis or insights in meetings, they were asking for more PowerPoint slides.
The slide itself becomes the end goal as opposed to the ideas or the analyses that are embedding within it – Sarah Kaplan
“I noticed that most people were making strategy by making PowerPoint,” she says. “The slide itself becomes the end goal as opposed to the ideas or the analyses that are embedded within it.”
Kaplan says that some CEOs, such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, have banned its use. “He felt, and I think many people feel, that PowerPoint became such an object of the process that they lost the ideas inside of it and that is the risk.”
One such risk played out on January 28, 1986, when the Nasa space shuttle Challenger broke apart just 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members. This tragedy has been cited by one of the most renowned critics of slide-style presentations, American statistician and information designer Edward Tufte, as a vivid and terrible illustration of the dangers of this kind of presentation style.
The primary problem that brought down the space shuttle had been included within a slide presentation given to Nasa before the mission. But it was surrounded by so much other information, buried in a stack of bullet points, it was effectively hidden and therefore missed.
Russell Davies says Tufte’s argument goes like this: slide-style visual presentations allow unstructured information to appear informative, so it looks like a set of bullet points has meaning, when that may only be an appearance. In other words, it makes it look like we know what we are talking about even if we don’t.
But for all its detractors, and hi-tech competition – it seems to have considerable staying power. PowerPoint is one of the most successful, enduring and influential pieces of software ever invented.
And so, in darkened rooms all across the world we will continue to sit through health and safety courses, sales pitches and conferences and lectures in which people valiantly attempt to condense what they know into just a few slides, with a smattering of bullet points and the odd cheesy gag to keep people awake.
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