Archive for February 7th, 2011

Unfortunately, the medium is the message.

Monday, February 7th, 2011

I recently endured a turgid, three-hour meeting at a client’s office. It stretched on for three hours, engorged by a seemingly endless series of PowerPoint slides, and it was all I (or anyone else) could do to hide the hypnic jerks that demonstrate, beyond a shadow of any doubt, that the meeting has gone on far too long.

Marshall McLuhan’s famous insight that “the medium is the message” wasn’t targeted at PowerPoint presentations, but lord does it ever apply. His point was that

“we largely miss the structural changes in our affairs that are introduced subtly, or over long periods of time. Whenever we create a new innovation – be it an invention or a new idea – many of its properties are fairly obvious to us. We generally know what it will nominally do, or at least what it is intended to do, and what it might replace. We often know what its advantages and disadvantages might be. But it is also often the case that, after a long period of time and experience with the new innovation, we look backward and realize that there were some effects of which we were entirely unaware at the outset.”

It’s fascinating, really: when you give people a clicker and a PowerPoint deck, they stop talking to their audience and begin talking at them. Instead of communicating in a normal, information-rich manner, they begin to break their thoughts and ideas into micro-chunks that are so laborious and time-consuming to process that you might as well be dealing with a reading primer book. Except in this case, instead of getting “See Dick. See Jane. See Dick and Jane,” you get something like this:

“We have a huge opportunity in front of us. But there are at least two serious competitive threats. First there is Acme Manufacturing. They have Wile E. Coyote as a well-known spokesman. He embodies determination. Second, there is Pillsbury. The doughboy has a high Q-Score. Plus, he’s well-fed and has a great laugh.”

Of course, there’s a bullet point for each of these sentences, just in case you didn’t get it — and as a result, the meeting goes on and on and on. This meeting could easily have been cut by one-third had the presenters dispensed with the PowerPoint and instead simply talked to the audience.

Garr Reynolds writes extensively and compellingly about what he calls “naked” presentations — presentations that are stripped of artifice, and that present ideas in a simple, powerful, and fresh manner. Naked communication is effective because the message can be communicated without the medium getting in the way. Naked communication also avoids the waste of unnecessary processing that PowerPoint almost always entails — both in preparing the slides, and then in making the audience listen to you slowly read through them.

Do yourself a favor: make the message the message.