The Skinny on Powerpoint

I did it. I finally used Powerpoint, that program-with-horns from the pit of Microsoft. And I didn’t feel dirty afterwards. Some friends were there to see me fall into sin and threatened to spill the beans, so i figured i would fess up before you hear it from them. Please dont leave flaming comments or hate email until you hear my story.

2 weeks ago I was to speak to group of ministry professionals in Sheffield, England at the Conference for Network-Based Churches. My presentation, entitled “Like a Rhizome Cowboy: Emergent Principles for Network Based Churches” was set up to be shown through my non-linear VJ |(video-jockey) program Arkaos 2.2. However, my beloved Arkaos endured a devastating mid-life crisis and gave itself a new identity (a unique number) refusing to turn up for work on my computer. It was probably locked up in a virtual wardrobe, crutching a teddy bear and assuming the foetal position. I couldn’t get online to assign it a new number, and i had to give my presentation early the next morning. What was i to do? Shadow Puppets? Flannel board? Magic Lantern?

Actually, a magic lantern would be cool. Missionaries were using these around the world since they were invented. But thats not the point. I was up the creek, and my only paddle was that evil program that shoots bullets. Powerpoint has been sitting dormant on my computer for 3 years, a sleeping demon awaiting conjuration. My audience was expecting to see something projected on a big screen. I had no choice. Dangitt. You have to believe me!

I know what you’re thinking . . . Andrew, was it not you who said, and i quote, “The Devil Uses Powerpoint”???

Ahhhh – yeah, that was me all right on April 22, 2004. I still believe this. God is a VJ and the devil uses powerpoint. Look at the temptation of Jesus. The devil employed a sales pitch and would have used Powerpoint for his business proposition. This is what Powerpoint is designed for. However, in order to show Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in a moment, he would have had to severely hack his program, or used more sophisticated tools that would allow multiple feeds from remote locations and video layering. Even my program cant do that . . . . yet. although i can accept a number of video feeds . . hmmmm.
God, on the other hand, seems more inclined to non-linear artistic presentation technologies. Like taking Ezekiel on a virtual tour of the Temple, or even better, the use of animated objects to write on the wall to impress Belshazzar. Although if you take a good look at how God inspired imagination and faith in his people, you will find Him not usually resorting to technology at all but rather referring to previous acts of visual creation – Hey Abraham, you see those stars . . . ?
And he certainly never used Powerpoint.

To save you googling, here is my 12 month history of demonizing Powerpoint.
Dec 2003 “My tribe would never forgive me if i used powerpoint, although i would love to test out the bluetooth option on my phone, together with my Clicker software, to control the presentation wirelessly. Maybe one day when i get older?”
Jan 2004 “Powerpoint is a program designed to sell a product and will always create suspicion among creatives.”
Feb 2004. “Nothing against Microsoft. Its just that using software that is designed for business presentations for spiritual purposes will not sit well with the emerging culture, unless there is a serious element of play or deconstruction. I said i was going to use it once and got slammed by my theoblogian readers.”
Oct 2004 “G-force is fun to use and free. I have been using it since April 2000, as a non-linear alternative to powerpoint [the devil uses powerpoint] . . . “

Wired Mag has also taken a few shots. A few months after my “Devil uses Powerpoint” statement, Wired ran an article called “Powerpoint is Evil” in which Edward Tufte said . . .
Years before today’s slideware, presentations at companies such as IBM and in the military used bullet lists shown by overhead projectors. But the format has become ubiquitous under PowerPoint, which was created in 1984 and later acquired by Microsoft. PowerPoint’s pushy style seeks to set up a speaker’s dominance over the audience. The speaker, after all, is making power points with bullets to followers. Could any metaphor be worse? Voicemail menu systems? Billboards? Television? Stalin?

Wired has just followed this up with Powerpoint Message is the Medium highlighting a conference this week called Powerpoint to the People that was designed to provoke artists to use Powerpoint in new ways. The result was disappointing, according to the critics, and most presentations were just a parody of Powerpoint, created by artists who didnt know how to use the program to the maximum.

But use Powerpoint i did. And to be honest, I didn’t feel dirty afterwards. In fact, I think i did a pretty good job. [i cant believe i am saying this]. Here is what i did, and i include it here, not to boast, or maybe just to boast a little, but moreover [this is the first time i have ever used the word “moreover” in my blog] but moreover . . . to say that there are ways to use powerpoint that are less powerpointy and more palatable.

– i used only a few colors – a medium grey against white for the text was more subtle and seemed to work better than a shouting glaring black on white or, even worse, the tropical ecclesiastical PURPLE of 1980’s church banners and 1990’s rave scenes (God forbid!)
– i never used bullets. I pretended they never existed.
– I changed the font from Times to Helvetica
– i never used transitions, although i would have used a fade in/out if i had to. But never the cheesey-whizzbangy-bulletty-whoooshy transitions that Powerpoint seems inclined towards. . . NEVER.
– i placed a looping QT movie next to my text. Quicktime Pro is the program of choice. I downloaded some old footage of ant colonies and emergent cells, and exported it to a 320 x 240 QT using Photo-Jpeg compression of only 12 frames. That kept it really small. Of course the movies were primed to run and loop automatically so i didnt have to play with the presentation or push more buttons like a geeky scientist. I could also ignore the movies if i wanted to, since they were not synched chronologically with anything i was saying.
– my projected text was never the propositional point – no reason to parrot i am saying – it is soooo redundant!
– my text was either the title (first slide) or a bible verse that supported what i was saying. i would rather have people meditate on the source material (Proverbs in my case) than my processed thought drawn from the source. Another advantage of this is that i could change what i want to say on the spot without having to change the presentation.
– my text was written creatively – use of size and colors and placement to generate alternate shades of meaning.
– if i had more time, i could have saved the whole presentation as a QT movie for the CD [good feature]
– if i really wanted to show off, which i didnt, i could have used my bluetooth sony ericsson phone as a remote control with a cheap program i bought called Clicker.
– look at me using bullets right here on my blog – isnt that the biggest contradiction you have ever come across?

Anyway, that was my Powerpoint experience. I will no doubt heal my broken program Arkaos and get back to doing some kick-butt presentations with it. But I am committed to not hassle the many people who use Powerpoint. For many of them, it is the only program they know how to use and they will continue to turn up to conferences with it. Lets not hassle them or make them feel crappy for using the devil’s tools. God is full of grace and forgiveness. We should be also.

Nuff said. This is where you slap my wrist in the comments and call me a lamer for using Powerpoint. Go ahead. Do your worst. Or if you dont want to waste our time, tell us how you use Powerpoint and give some more tips for the Lamers . . . I mean the people out there stuck with Powerpoint or Keynote.

Andrew

Andrew Jones has been blogging since 1997. He is based in San Francisco with his two daughters but also travels the globe to find compelling stories of early stage entrepreneurs changing their world. Sometimes he talks in the third person. Sometimes he even talks to himself and has been heard uttering the name "Precious" :-)

21 Comments

  • Whatever happened to Apple’s Keynote? i thought somewhere during your blogspot days you were praising about what a great program it was.
    For me? i’ve never used it. Actually, i’ve been fortunate enough to not have to make computer presentations. The whole Office 2004/Mac *is* installed just in case, however!

  • Hi Josh. Yes- i praised it, before i saw it. It didnt turn out to be much different than powerpoint. Premature of me – my apologies.
    I still recommend G-Force [ http://www.55ware.com ] for those without any money or software. I have used it on and off for over 4 years.
    Mediashout is also big with church people but only one step up from powerpoint.

  • I use Open Office.org -great FLOSS programme. It’s great to see someone working out of similar principles for presentations that I had arrived at. I’ve tended to use animated gif’s a lot in stead of video loops but pretty similar rules of thumb thanks for sharing them.

  • There’s not much in the world that much worse than a technology snob.
    You had a task to do and needed a tool. You used a tool. Perhaps it wasn’t all that you wanted, maybe it was more than you needed. But it was a tool.
    Use the tools you have, find new tools, whatever, but never ever ever put down someone else for using a different tool. That’s my theory.
    So bravo to you for using a new tool. Now at least you know whether or not you like it; before you tried it all you had was a theory.

  • Nice post! Please be at peace; remember that – just like “guns don’t kill people, people with guns and bullets do”, “powerpoint is just a tool and can be used for good or for evil”.
    Sounds like you used it for good, and survived!
    😉

  • Presentation software and rules

    Nouslife: slide presentations -the rules broadens (and includes) Andrew Jones insights) on “rules” and observations on using presentation software. Some helpful stuff there. Almost a year ago I blogged Greenflame: PowerPoint Is Good/Evil on similar the…

  • Kevin-
    The point of Edward Tufte’s articles, and I think what Andrew’s getting at, is that sometimes tools take over their users and force us into patterns of thinking and behavior that we don’t belong in.
    If I understand correctly, Tufte is saying PowerPoint is evil because it assumes and requires a linear, point-by-point, one-way style of communication. It’s not as if he’s saying his Nokia cell phone is better than your Motorola just because; he’s saying that PowerPoint is a regression into forms of interaction that we would never employ unless forced to by our presentation software. This leaves us as slaves to Marshall McLuhan’s axiom that the medium is the message.

  • Thanks Justin
    I would go further than Tufte, and already have, in saying that the very usage of Powerpoint is a problem, since it assumes the form of a sales tool, thus shaping our message as a deal, a bargin, something to be sold.
    the gospel of Jesus, this story that we carry and share with others, is NOT a product to be sold, but rather a story to be told. It does better with software that is designed for storytelling than with software designed for sales pitches.
    therefore, if we use it, and most of us will at some desperate points in our life, we have to be conscious of its inherent tendency towards commodification and manipulation, especially if we hope to communicate among creatives.
    sorry i wasnt as clear in the beginning of my blog. My goal was not to beat up on powerpoint users, but actually to give some encouragement to the many thousands of presenters and communicators and teachers out there who use powerpoint apologetically.

  • Yes, it’s a sales-oriented, linear bit of work, but whenever I’m called upon to speak to groups that are skeptical, mostly-modern, or open-but-need-to-be-convinced, I’ve found that PowerPoint has been very helpful.
    I can’t stand any of the “stock” versions, but Google will turn up some creative, artsy, and less-business-like backgrounds to be used.
    And the Agency font is cool — try “Format Font” under the “Format” menu, and mix the colours as well (there’s usually about six suggested complimentary colours to start with).
    Transitions should follow cinematic examples — either a crossfade or better yet, just “cut” from one screen to another. I think it’s the cheesy swishy vertigo-inducing transitions that are the main reason so many of us avoided PowerPoint for so long!

  • I could never verbalise why I hated Powerpoint. Thanks for the post – it was somewhat enlightening to me. And you usually don’t use bullets. No stone from me and pp can -as your case shows- prove to be useful at certain times.

  • From thevoiz.com:
    Towards Liquid Media: I don’t know if I buy into the mentality that PowerPoint is evil and creatives are suspicious of it. But, I’m always up for learning new software. I do think Premiere and PowerPoint are linear, I thought I would do a search for something non-linear. I discovered a cool program called Liquid Media which falls somewhere between Premiere – PowerPoint – Flash. Been playing with it this evening. Try it here: http://www.liquidmedia.net

  • Yes- the OS X RSS screensaver was created using Quartz Composer which is a good example of what’s possible. Dig out your tiger DVD and install the developer tools from it. Then hop over to
    Mactech -Quartz Composer for a good intro tutorial.
    Quartonian is free QC VJ’ing app – you might like it too. Certainly cheaper than Arkaos!

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