Mystery Media

What kind of medium is PowerPoint? And where does it fit in the range of other media including film, TV, photography, comics, websites, and paper?

Scott McCloud is one of the smartest people I know when it comes to understanding media, and when I asked him the same question in an interview recently, his response was basically:

"I don’t know."

Not only was it refreshing for someone to honestly admit he didn’t knowmedia something, but it also struck me that Scott’s answer was absolutely right. We really don’t know what PowerPoint is today. But in order to use the tool most effectively, we need to honestly admit that it doesn’t fit into any other media category, and begin an honest exploration of what it really is.

In his classic 1993 book Understanding Comics, Scott wrote:

"Ever since the invention of the written word, new media have been misunderstood. Each new medium begins its life by imitating its predecessors. Many early movies were like filmed stage plays, much early television was like radio with pictures or reduced movies."

Likewise, a new medium called PowerPoint imitated its predecessor, the 35mm slide projector. It made it easy to create and assemble a series of static slides of bulleted lists on a computer, and eventually project them onto a wall. But things have changed over the years as the software gained more and more features, to the point today that this computerized slide projector has transformed into something entirely different.

Although PowerPoint can still present a series of static slides, it can also display full-screen video, animations, motion graphics, and other multimedia elements including sound. This weblog has documented a number of applications that a slide projector cannot accomplish, including storyboarding, clarifying your thoughts, painting a canvas, collaborating, opening a presentation dashboard, cross-media documents, splitting meaning, and more.

In spite of this reality, discussion and criticism of PowerPoint remains essentially stuck in slide projector mode. Take any critical article or essay about a PowerPoint slide and insert a full-screen video there instead, and the critical model simply falls apart. This is an important issue, because if we judge PowerPoint too quickly or too superficially, we’re rejecting not only what we’ve seen, but also what we haven’t yet seen.

Part of the problem is that once the slide projector metaphor is gone, it’s hard to classify PowerPoint into any other media category. Is it like film or TV? Although it can show video, we normally would show only a clip and then comment or converse about it, which you wouldn’t usually experience in a movie theater or a living room. Is it photography? It can display photographs, but on a wall instead of paper, and we can crop, edit, add text or juxtapose them in an instant. Is it like comics? It is a sequence of images, but as Scott points out, they reside in the same frame rather than in a series of panels. Is it like paper? People often treat PowerPoint as a piece of paper when they design slides, but it’s not the best use of the medium for group reading. That said, with a unified design approach you can create a media document that works equally well across paper, projector and browser.

Clearly PowerPoint doesn’t easily fit into any of these media categories, but instead spans all of them. We haven’t encountered anything like it, and it reveals that our media theories are not yet deep enough to help us understand it.

So in what directions can we turn to start understanding PowerPoint? Some of the most interesting thinking today that may help us understand PowerPoint better is in the emerging field of visual rhetoric. In her 1988 book Eloquence in an Electronic Age, Kathleen Hall Jamieson argues that because of our educational systems and the influence of mass media, our culture’s general skills of public speaking have deteriorated. But she also describes how politicians such as Ronald Reagan have blended together public speaking and visual media into a new form of communication, and it is at this intersection that the real possibilities for PowerPoint can spring forth.

PowerPoint has quickly made it crystal clear to businesspeople and educators that our culture needs dramatic improvement in public speaking skills. But it also has introduced a new media pathway to solve the problem, if we engage the new opportunites that PowerPoint presents. In order to do that, we need to tap into PowerPoint’s capabilities as a rhetorical tool to help us collect our ideas and structure our thoughts. That means clearing out all the questions of fonts, backgrounds and animations until our rhetorical structure is rock-solid, and then engage the visuals only after that core foundation is complete.

By using a single tool to improve both public speaking and visual media, we can innovate a wide range of new ways to communicate clearly with the mystery medium called PowerPoint.

Tip: If you’re using PowerPoint only as a slide projector, consider how you can innovate the ways you use the tool. What about trying PowerPoint as storyboarding tool, or to collaborate with other people and gain buy-in, or to focus your message? Scroll through the postings in this weblog for a host of ideas on how to innovate with PowerPoint and transform mystery into clarity.

This entry was posted in Business Strategy, Communications, Media, PowerPoint, Presentations, Web/Tech, Weblogs. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to “Mystery Media”

  1. “PowerPoint has quickly made it crystal clear to businesspeople and educators that our culture needs dramatic improvement in public speaking skills”

    This is an interesting comment – my spouse is a teacher and has tried to get public speaking/presentation/communcation skills into her school’s course listings for some time now. They let it run one year and then shut it down due to low participation. Interesting perspective you give here on this tool and the shortcomings it has exposed.

    I find one of the critical faults of people writing a powerpoint presentation is that they wing it or do not given enough time to properly compose one and then second they try and proof it themselves without seeking feddback from colleagues or at least sleeping one night before proofing their own work.

    thanks for this one – good points

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