Informatization and multimodal media usage

The rise of software-based presentations and their critics

During the 1990s the widespread availability of hardware (PC and laptop), new software concepts (“de-materialisation” of projection slides) and the affordability of video projectors triggered the well-known boom in software-based presentations. Their initial rapid spread, during which this convenient tool was embraced naively and thoughtlessly, was soon followed - as was only logical - by considerable criticism, often trenchant, such as: “Ban it now! Friends don’t let friends use PowerPoint” (Stewart 2001); “PowerPoint is evil” (Tufte 2003); or “Think of it as technological cocaine” (Keller 2003). (For further examples and commentary, see Mertens 2004). Bieber (2009: 134-135) even ranks such comments on a “maliciousness scale” [Bosartigkeitsskala]. These contributions, however, also include some perfectly rational arguments, of which a brief summary, based on Handler (2006: 222; 2013: 33-34), is given below.

The main focus of criticism was that the ppt format requirements forced contents into an inappropriate form: “it edits ideas” (Parker 2001); “it squeezes ideas into a preconceived format” (Keller 2003); “[it] elevates format over content” (Tufte 2003). One reason for PowerPoint’s success was seen to be its effect on the speaker as an “impressive antidote to fear” (Parker 2001), as the speaker may to some extent “cling” to their set of slides. The flip side is, however, the development of a “pushy style” (Tufte 2003). The dominant sequentiality makes it harder to show how ideas are connected: “When information is stacked in time, it is difficult to understand context and evaluate relationships” (Tufte 2003). Moreover, the audience is subjected to visual overkill; images acquire a significance of their own instead of illuminating and supplementing what is being said (cf. Tufte 2003). A particular ppt problem that seems almost ineradicable is summed up as “the sin of triple delivery” (Parker 2001, with reference to Simons). In its most extreme form, this means that the audience is presented with the same content three times: first visually, on slides; second aurally, as the presenter reads out their content; and third textually, as a print-out of the slides.

One ppt functionality has come under particularly fierce attack. Essentially a selection of pre-produced slide templates designed for particular communicative settings, such as staff meetings, training courses for new hires or project reports, this is known as “Autocontent wizard”. Presumably it was this name, actually intended as a joke by the software designers (cf. Bieber 2009: 132), that caused all the fuss. Linking “content”, which communicates “meaning” and is thus the sphere of the thinking human, with automatism, indeed even magic, was considered intolerable sacrilege. The name has disappeared, even if “wizard” itself lives on in the OpenOffice world. Yet templates and model slide sets for almost any situation in life, personal or corporate, are available on Office and other servers. Both PowerPoint and its users seem to have reached a certain level of maturity. More recent programme developments have focused on establishing a certain kind of unobtrusive aesthetics based on colour combination schemes, on facilitating routine processes (e.g., image processing in the programme itself), on cloud connection and seamless switching between the various platforms.

Nevertheless, one problem regarding slide usage remains widespread; indeed it has given rise to a new portmanteau coinage: “slideument” (Duarte 2008: 7). This refers to the use of slide sets as documentation for later referencing and/or as a source of information for those not present during the presentation itself. In companies they are even requested in advance - in order to decide whether to attend the presentation (cf. Beaudouin 2008: 384). But here lies a fundamental contradiction. In a ppt presentation that is appropriate to its situation, the slides do not display the full content but serve to structure, supplement and clarify what is said. Video analyses of the “orchestration” of lists on slides, which mainly consists of explaining and managing audience attention, show how details and supplementary material which do not appear in the projected text are commonly placed (cf. Schnettler 2007:151,155).

If slides alone are to render all the information, they must inevitably be designed in such a (detailed) manner that the presenter is demoted to a mere reader/ paraphraser - indeed becomes superfluous. The different tasks of “presentation” and “documentation” can be properly accomplished only by using different forms of communication and the textuality characteristic of each. In practice, though, compromises are common. Financial pressures demand quick solutions and thus ppt sets are produced for two functions - neither of which they fulfil satisfactorily.

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