Artemy Lebedev

§ 145. Pointless presentation

December 16, 2007

In American schools each classroom has an overhead projector to show images up on the wall.

Teachers use color markers instead of chalk and transparencies instead of a blackboard. Some teaching materials are pre-printed on plastic sheets and some are made during the class. Overhead projectors have become so popular, because they allow displaying neatly typed texts and complicated images that would be too hard to draw with chalk. Overheads appeared after blackboards, but before computers, and came into wide use in education in the US.

Now, they are still used in kindergartens, schools and universities. But in business, slide presentations are the preference—using slide projectors in the past and computers today.

Projecting images is as attributable to American culture as strip cartoons. In Russia, however, projected images (slide films) were meant to entertain little children. It used to be that, starting from school years and further on through life, people found oral presentation with occasional use of chalkboards perfectly enough.

Obiter dictum

Thinking through the eye comes naturally to the Americans. There are infographics in the US periodicals and detailed 3D scenes of the events in their news broadcasts. American viewers are capable of conceiving such information. Take any piece of American business literature—no author fails to draw some stool with its three legs being the three major principles on which the seat of the phenomenon rests.

In Russia an illustrated example is but a decoration. People can neither adequately comprehend nor create one. Russian tradition is in many ways related to European views, and according to those, there is nothing wrong about speaking in public without any visual support.

Once computers became more or less common, much of office work got computerized. The world’s most popular software package produced by Microsoft in its basic configuration includes a text editor (a substitute for typewriters), a table processor (which once appealed strongly to so many companies, a successor of accounting machines and calculators), an e-mail program (instead of paper mail) and slideshow software (in place of overheads and slide projectors).

Who would have thought that making presentations for an American is one of the essentials of office work?

Obiter dictum

Note that the PowerPoint icon, although varying from version to version, is always a slide frame image. This proves that business traditions continue.

If Office was invented in Russia, it would contain, perhaps, a hole punch, but no slide projectors. Since it is difficult to computerize a hole punch, Russian office software never had any slideware—it conflicts with our way of negotiating that is based on direct communication rather than on an impersonal presentation of 15 ready-made images.

Under the influence of American companies and their standards of business conduct, Russia’s largest businesses today use PowerPoint. Each day in thousands of conference halls, meeting rooms and offices the lights are turned off, so that the audience could see what speakers have managed to prepare at home.

Obiter dictum

The word presentation in office use has become a synonym for slide presentation. At least, for all office workers it bears only one meaning—when told to make/send a presentation, they think of the PowerPoint files.

Watching a slide presentation in 99 out of 100 cases is a dull, boring and drab activity.

The speaker—as a rule, an ill-prepared young businessman who stumbles, stammers and hums—hits the spacebar to go to the next slide. If the slide contains text, all viewers manage to read it faster than the speaker words it out. It’s awkward—everyone already knows what it says while the speakers is still struggling to voice his initial points. Such discordance between visual and oral parts makes all participants suffer, but no one dares to interfere and all go on suffering silently.

Obiter dictum

Incredibly many office workers are bound to follow corporate rules making Kafka turn in his grave. That is why they are called office plankton.

In most cases a PowerPoint slide contains primitive arguments like three lines of text and a circle diagram, because more information cannot be put in. You can’t really read the whole page of text off a TV screen, and it’s equally true of presentations.

See Edward R. Tufte’s wonderful essay
The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint

Presentations are always made with the following picture of business ways: A representative of tribe A is supposed to meet a team of representatives from tribe B out in the woods (the former wants to get something from the latter), and he is going to show them a bunch of animal teeth. The result is nearly always predefined—neither those who show presentations, nor those who watch them are in charge of anything. The decision won’t be made until later, when the tribe leaders meet.

A rational busy person doesn’t care about presentations for he knows that it’s nothing but some biased promotional garbage.

Conclusion: The best presentation is the one never shown.

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