The Worst of Both Worlds

One of the reasons we might be having problems with PowerPoint is that we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.

That’s what struck me the other day when I interviewed professor Dale Cyphert about the relationship between our classic ideas about rhetoric and PowerPoint. rhetoric1The way she put it, we’re basically at a cultural crossroads between our traditional ideas of Western “oratory” from earlier periods of history, and a new global “media-age” that has embraced non-traditional ways of communicating that were previously ignored or belittled. As the two worldviews clash, PowerPoint is often stuck in the middle, reflecting the worst of both worlds to each cultural woldview:

“The result is either an ‘immature’ or ‘indecent’ use of electronic communication from an oratorical worldview, or a ‘boring’ or ‘limiting’ form of presentation structure from a media-age perspective. Neither audience will find it to be acceptable or effective rhetoric.”

That would explain people why some people say we should get rid of PowerPoint altogether (they’re coming from an oratorical worldview), and why other people say it’s a very primitive tool (they’re coming from a media-age perspective).

According to Dale, what will result from this clash of cultures is something new that blends together the engagement of in-person relationships and the power of media:

“The live presenter, taking advantage of electronic tools, is in a position to provide the first real bridge from the very ‘literate’ rhetoric that has dominated Western politics for the past few centuries to the more ‘oral’ traditions of theater, poetry and dance. Television alone taps into some of those emotional, communal, personal reactions, but loses virtually all the advantages of reasoned discussion. We certainly don’t want presenters to start to create video shows for audience members to view at their own convenience — which unfortunately has been done. There’s something about the person of the presenter that is crucial to good collective decision-making. We might be evolving from ‘formal orator’ to ‘discussion facilitator’ as the model, but rhetoric still seems to require a human personality to guide people’s thinking in good directions.”

Who would’ve thought that creating a little old PowerPoint might be evolving human communication in a positive direction? Keep that in mind the next time you get ready to present.

Tip: Think about which worldview holds sway in your mind, and then about which worldview holds sway in the minds of your organization and your next audience. If you are a “formal orator” and consider PowerPoint to be a visual aid to hold text, select one of your slides and use a full-screen image to stretch your thinking. If you consider PowerPoint to be a primitive tool, expand a full-screen even larger and create a visual “scene” for your presentation with a PowerPoint slide. If you want to try out being a “media-enabled facilitator”, use a simple evocative media technique to open up a dialogue that wouldn’t happen any other way. And if you’re particularly daring, walk “into” an image as Scott McCloud does during his presentations. Remember, a PowerPoint innovation a day keeps the boredom — and culture clashes — at bay.

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4 Responses to “The Worst of Both Worlds”

  1. Hi Cliff,
    While I agree completely with your conclusion that we’re at a point of change, I disagree slightly with your historical premise. Although visual media are as old as cave-drawings, I feel that it is wrong to characterise them as ‘ignored or belittled’. Early orators simply could not do many of the things we can do today. The ‘crossroads’ has been created by our technology, which has opened avenues that our predecessors probably never imagined. Far frmo being a crossroads then, I think of this as more of a realisation that we have these new possibilities, and therefore we need to change…
    Cheers,
    Kevin

  2. cliff says:

    Hi Kevin – With my “ignored or belittled” reference I was thinking mostly of storytelling and theater. But you bring up a great point that technology has given us media power we’ve never had before, so maybe this isn’t so much a “crossroads” as an unprecedented opportunity for “evolution” of earlier historical ideas.

  3. Presenting with PowerPoint: 10 dos and don’ts

  4. The effectiveness of the PowerPoint tool varies depending on the subject matter.

    For a presidential political presentation PowerPoint would take away from the dynamics of the speaker.

    For education and training, specifically when it comes to technical information, the tool is very effective.

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