Rendered Fat Content


"I have nothing to show and almost everything left to discover."

Having sat through just as many PowerPoint® presentations as the next guy, I took the news to heart when I saw Edward Tufte report that they tended to "lower the ceiling." I swore to myself to move that technology to the Avoid Learning side of the ledger. Who wants to lower any ceiling? The Muse works in a world where PowerPoint proficiency stands well up on the hiring criteria chart. Her slide presentation served as a significant part of her initial interview. She could not have been hired without demonstrating her skill as a graphic artist, a field of study not listed on the position description and one she never pursued. Even the PhDs hired there must demonstrate this odd ability, regardless of how many advanced degrees they hold. I still think Tufte was right, the mere presence of that fateful projection screen sets a context where one might reasonably expect that nothing very surprising will happen.

These sessions sometimes seem like competitions to see who cam cram the most unreadable words onto a single slide.
Within organizations, templates define the color and texture of each page, so they vary only slightly. Some presenters incorporate motion and hit the advance button in perfect synchrony with their talk, effectively distracting their audience. As one Stanford adjunct confided to me, they're in the business of Info-tainment. Without the distraction, the lecture loses all meaning. All this seems fine with me. I no longer inhabit a space where projection systems rule. When I see a PowerPoint or Keynote deck loading, I can usually safely excuse myself from the proceedings, and plan on checking back in when the so-called Question and Answer period begins, when some genuine conversation might accidentally intrude.

I can get kind of huffy about these things. I know myself to not now, nor never, or ever likely to become a skilled graphic artist. That profession requires a certain visual orientation to the world and years of dedicated study that almost nobody producing a deck of meeting slides possesses. Still, there's a predictable rhythm to these shows. The actual images tend to have little to do with the textual content. Many hems and hahs, "you knows", and similar spoken static will come through the microphone. The presenter will probably eventually just resort to reading the slides out loud, which helps when the presented text otherwise proves unreadable. A predictable pace emerges, slow at first then increasingly rushed as the presenter realizes that their fifteen minute slice of schedule will unfortunately prevent them from reading the entire contents of War and Peace from the podium. [See me after if you have any questions. Sorry, but company policy prevents me from sharing the slide deck online.]

My dear friend Peter recently invited me to appear on his podcast, a genuine honor of an invitation. I responded warmly, but with one stipulation, that being that he would not expect me to produce an accompanying PowerPoint® presentation. He cajoled me, insisting that a slide deck is integral to his podcast format. The Muse said she could help. I'd backed into my IncompetencePoint. I possess several talents, any of which I could diminish by distilling any part of them into a ceiling lowering slide deck. My friend Franklin, an experienced coach, suggested that I just choose images and forget about summarizing text. I found some dandy Brueghels unrestricted by copyright, then set about trying to imagine how I might spin the story I'd intended to spin to both match the graphics while remaining true to my first principle of presenting, which is that it's cheating to know how the story will end before telling the story.


I suppose this graphic's too busy to talk over, anyway. This story only draws my interest because it refreshes my appreciation for why I shunned the old PP in the first place. The program, whether PowerPoint® itself or its native Mac cousin Keynote®, drives me to my IncompetencePoint, a place of extreme vulnerability. The technology itself seems designed to be off-putting, with many subtle operations hidden behind secret keystrokes. Even thinking in terms of serial projection sends me slinking to the showers, as if the price of admission seems to be eternal humiliation. I suddenly don't feel so smart anymore. How could someone as dumb as me ever really qualify as a guest on my dear friend Peter's podcast, anyway?

With the ceiling properly lowered, I end this tale crawling around seeking a little head room. I understand that everybody produces slide presentations now. Well, everyone but me. Like much technology, this one's not really designed to expand any human capacity, but to inhibit its spread. It does more than lower the ceilings. It also seems to narrow the already tiny aperture through which insight might creep in. It demands slavish following from both presenter and audience and inhibits what I still understand to be the purpose of presenting anything. I have nothing to show and almost everything left to discover. I want to be just as vulnerable as possible before the crowd, not propped up as if I already knew, as if I didn't need the flowing interaction to say anything worthwhile.

©2019 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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