One of the biggest problems with relying on PowerPoint for all of your presentations is that it’s not a very good format for the storytelling that needs to be a part of any persuasive argument. The interruptions between slides and the relentless onslaught of bullets aren’t very effective at creating a coherent narrative. At least that’s what I tell the people in my presentation training classes.
Here to prove me wrong is a chapter from Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad told entirely in PowerPoint. I guess winning a Pulitzer will teach me a lesson!
You can read (view? play?– we may need new language for these kinds of things) the entire chapter here:
Imagine my surprise when I turned (flipped? swiped?) a page of the novel expecting to find the next chapter and found myself staring at a PowerPoint slide instead. Because I was reading on my iPad it was even more startling than it would have been if I’d been reading the hardcover. It was almost as if I’d accidentally switched programs and was suddenly working on a presentation instead of just enjoying a good story by the pool. My brain had to come to a full stop and switch gears in order to recover.
By the way, I’m not a big fan of e-readers, despite many peoples’ attempts to convince me of their benefits. Maybe it’s just my age, but I think it also has something to do with my academic training and the way I learned to love the physical elements of books at the same time I was learning to appreciate their contents.
My skepticism isn’t even about the technological limitations of e-readers– the advantages of certain kinds of screens or the limits of their battery lives. I like to own the concrete book itself, to be able to browse them on my shelves, hoard them, lend them to people I trust, smell the fresh ink when they are new and the dust they collect when they aren’t.
But mostly I like to be able to write in them. As a child I never would have written in my books out of fear of “ruining” them. But more than a decade of college and grad school put me in the habit of making notes in everything I read. I underline sections I think are important, put stars next to big ideas, make lists, brainstorm and note important page numbers on the inside covers.
It’s not like I’m planning to do any work on most of the things I read; I’m not going to write book reports about them. I just like being able to interact with my books this way and feel like it helps slow down my reading so I actually pay better attention and retain more of what I’ve read. Without a pen in my hand it’s too easy to just pass my eyes over the words and feel like I’ve read something and wind up with only a vague recollection of it later.
But last week I was on vacation in Santa Barbara (coincidentally where I picked up my habit of scribbling notes in college) without a book of my own to read and mark up. I did have my iPad, however, and downloaded a copy of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, a novel that I’d given to my mom for Christmas but hadn’t read myself. It’s a good read, cleverly constructed of interlocking chapters that tell the stories of a group of characters from different perspectives.
Not having a hard copy was actually kind of a fortuitous accident. I don’t know if Egan had given much thought to the added impact that PowerPoint would have when the novel was viewed on an e-reader, but it was the first time that I felt I was having a more powerful experience reading something on a screen than I would have in a book.
Confronted with slides, my brain just had no idea what to do and I was suddenly jolted out of my normal reading experience. There was the familiar slide format, the default layout of a title slide, the uninspired choice of font. But what was it doing in the middle of a novel? I even had to turn my head sideways to read the text since the slides weren’t rotating correctly on my iPad.
While the inspiration to write fiction in PowerPoint is brilliant and handled here with great skill, it also gives us an idea of how hard it is to actually tell a story this way. The biggest issue I find with following a narrative in PowerPoint is figuring out how to read the slides. Without a live presenter to connect the dots, how do you know at first glance how one slide follows another? What connects them? Transitions– the ideas, not the animations– are really hard to create between slides when you want to propel a story forward. And how do you even know how to read the elements in a slide? Do your read left to right, across then down? Clockwise? How do you interpret the graphic elements and how do they relate to the words? It’s a totally different way of reading then simply following the sentences that make up a normal narrative.
These issues are something that we all need to remember when we’re creating our presentations. We “read” slides differently than other kinds of texts and, despite the habits of many presenters, we shouldn’t create slides that are covered with paragraphs of text. Slides should be treated as visual aids that support what you have to say as the speaker, not as your script itself. By design, your slides should leave out a lot of what you plan to say. Slides are a framework– as the speaker you need to provide the connective tissue.
Egan talks about this discordant effect that including a chapter written in PowerPoint has on her book in an interview that’s posted on Amazon. Writing in a non-traditional and “difficult” format like PowerPoint highlights the gaps, awkward spots and changes of style and tone throughout the whole novel. She even says that she didn’t really understand the overall structure of the book until the rest of it was already written and she was working on the PowerPoint section, that the whole novel is about the kind of discontinuity exhibited in this one chapter. PowerPoint lets her really highlight this effect.
“PowerPoint is not continuous,” she tells her interviewer:
“It is not a flow. It is a series of images and moments. Which is really how the whole book works.”
“This book is all about the pauses. A lot of the action takes place during the pauses and we visit people at other moments after these pauses or before they begin. I think it really is the lynchpin.”
The challenges of telling a story in PowerPoint, the problems of making transitions between slides and bullet points, are exactly what she’s trying to demonstrate. They’re at the heart of the book.
There are at least a couple of things that presenters can learn from this novel experiment. First, despite my insistence that PowerPoint isn’t the right tool for telling a story, it can be done. But it requires a lot of thought to do it well. It also helps to be an experienced and much-awarded novelist like Egan.
Second, it can be really useful to think of the pieces of your presentations that you don’t put up on screen in the way that Egan talks about the “pauses” that contain much of the action from her story. As the speaker you have to tell a compelling story, but you don’t have to put everything up on the screen.
Actually, an experiment in storytelling through PowerPoint makes a great exercise if you feel like giving yourself a little homework. Think about a story that you know really well. It could be anything: a fairy tale, the story of your prom date or the plot of a Seinfeld episode. How would you tell it in PowerPoint? What resources would you use? Visual aids? Bullet points? Sound effects or video? What would you put on the screen and what would you just tell your audience in the “pauses”?
The bottom line is to figure out which parts are really important and are likely to be interesting and influential to your audience. Then try to create all your presentations by telling your stories that way. It’s not always easy, but finding a way to structure your presentations as stories is one of the best ways to ensure your success.