World changing presentations

Before the proliferation of video projectors and computers, and the proliferation of Microsoft PowerPoint and similar programs, lectures with visual aids usually meant a few phrases on a chalk board, or a few select phrases on flip charts. Sometimes visual aids meant overhead projector slides, which offer the advantage of the lecturer’s being able to write on the slide as the lecture progresses.

When I did a lot more lecturing for corporations and professional groups, I carried 35-millimeter photo slides, professionally produced. Some of them showed just the cover of a book. I favored black or very dark backgrounds with one word on a slide. With just one word, I could edit the presentation more easily, shuffling the order of the key words I wanted to use literally up to the last moment. Laying out a three-hour presentation using just single-word slides, with a few photos or other illustrations, served to focus me on the outline of the speech, on the pacing and timing of the presentation, and focus especially on just what the message was to be — what I wanted the audience to leave the auditorium humming.

PowerPoint changed all of that, and not necessarily for the better. Oh, I use PowerPoint myself, though I tend to favor single, high-impact historical photographs, rather than the thousand-word essays some people put up on the single slides. I still edit to get pictures that are spare in presentation, but rich in thought, and rich in potential for edifying talk. I have seen a few PowerPoint masters — perhaps you have, too — who can dispense an enormous amount of information and inspiration with a minimum of words and slides.

It is a skill too few have. More often we endure a form of torture that uses the slow drip, drip, drip of PowerPoint, presentations that go way too long, or that feature slides with so many words that one may as well have a book to read — except we’re forced to read them in a poorly-lit conference room with a projector that the presenter has only just met, and the two of them have failed to work out their relationship to present a united front in public.

Or perhaps the presentation is short, but it leaves you wondering just why the presenter bothered to put the thing on slides at all, since it was over so quickly the projection only detracted from the power and thought of the presentation.

And then there is the issue of people who never learned how to structure an essay, who think that PowerPoint is great because it gets them out of having to organize their thoughts in any cogent, coherent way. ‘If it’s on a slide, they’ll salute it,’ seems to be the motto of some of these people.

Angry 365-days-a-year nails some of the problems, in “Death by PowerPoint.” If nothing else, go there to see what NOT to do. In the past five years I’ve had to grade dozens of such presentations by students, and in each and every one I have advised the students to reduce the amount of verbiage on the slide, increase the type size, and simplify, simplify, simplify. In most of the cases, I have had to struggle to extract from the student and presentation just what the key idea was — the students seem to think the key idea is to get as many words on a slide as possible, and use every one of the animation schemes available to make the words dance incomprehensibly. Mr. Angry might agree that these are the people who too often get promoted to management, and should not.

He also points the way to one of my favorite pieces of internet satire, a redoing of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address — as a PowerPoint presentation. In the hands of an experienced business presenter, even the most soaring language and thought can be tied down with with rusty chains.

There is hope!

KnowHR, on the other hand, features their list of Ten Best Presentations Ever. It’s skewed mightily to presentations on computer and office-automation technology, but it’s a good list. They do not limit their material to PowerPoint-style presentations — and that clears the view to see that there are other possibilities. It’s a solid list, with links to most of the presentations so you can see what a good one looks like.

In comments there I nominate a few more presentations that I would cite for their world-changing qualities, and skewed to my interests in history and law, of course. None of them were done on PowerPoint.

Learning Point: If you are a teacher or college professor, the odds are extremely high that you have not seen or even heard of most of these presentations, nor, perhaps, even the presenters. Go look — these presentations cover topics you should know, if you’re training the future generations.

KnowHR also links to a Google Video of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech of August 28, 1963. This is really fantastic! It seems to be the complete speech. I have been searching for a copy of the entire speech, in video, for less than $100, for four years. It is not easy to find. I suspect that the King family does not know it’s on Google Video, because careful protection of the copyright is one of the main reasons cited for the speech’s not being more readily available on VHS or DVD. This is wonderful material for a history unit on civil rights, for a capstone of a lesson on the life of King, or for rhetoric and oratory classes. I also use the speech in business law, to talk about copyright and how it works (there is a famous lawsuit over who held the copyright).

One can find lists of the five or ten most important sea battles in the history of the world, or in the history of Europe, or in the modern age. One can find lists of the most important battles. It is more rare to think of the most important “presentations,” non-war turning points in history that were prompted by the presentation of an idea whose time had come, to a people ready to receive it and act on it. We should study such cases in more depth, in hopes we might duplicate them — a speech is infinitely cheaper than war.

2 Responses to World changing presentations

  1. […] KnowHR had a great post a while ago on the “ten best presentations ever,” mostly pertaining to IT and other technology. I noted it on this blog, and I also wrote in with some recommendations for other presentations that ought to be in a ten best presentations list. […]


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