How Microsoft killed the art of public speaking


So there they are, hunkered down, deep underground, somewhere just outside Seattle. The Microsoft SPB – Strategic Planning Bunker. Coffee and donuts on the table, they’re thinking the unthinkable. And discussing their enemies.

“It was awful,” one of them says. “This guy talks, the audience listen, they applaud. Afterwards they drink coffee, chat to each other – ”

“Interact, you mean.”

“Yeah, yeah. Then they go back into the same room, another guy talks…”

“And no-one presses F1 for help?”

“No-one so much as thinks about a PC. They even laugh.”

“We have to stop it. Good public speaking and PC’s can’t live in the same world. We need something – something that’ll kill public speaking stone dead.”

Like the monkeys writing Hamlet, the nerds eventually crack the problem. And gradually, insidiously, Agent PowerPoint is doing its job.

I’ve been to a few presentations in the past week. In a couple of cases, interesting people who could have said interesting things – if only they’d had the courage to turn their laptops off.

You know, if you’re planning to spend 45 minutes putting up PowerPoint slides and then reading them out, do us all a favour. Instead of your logo, (because we don’t want reminding who you are), just put the Samaritans number along the bottom of your slides.

What do you get with a PowerPoint presentation? Well, number one, you get five minutes pointless fiddling around while they find the right presentation, get the damn machine in focus and work out what button to press so it doesn’t run backwards. Then there’s a quick preview of slide 17 when they press said button too many times to check it’s working, lots of nervous laughter and then some fool turns round to the audience and says ‘nearly there.’

Eventually, someone starts speaking. And your thought process goes something like this…

Right, read that one, thanks. Next. Oh, he’s still reading it out. How did they get those highlights? Can I do that? Maybe it’s 2007 – what am I using? 2003? Why have they used red and orange? Maybe he’s colour-blind…wonder if he’ll take questions at the end? I’ll ask if he’s colour-blind. Oh, Jesus, he’s making something fly in from the side. Well maybe that was impressive ten years ago. Bet he’s got a pair of flares at home. Hey up – next slide…read it. Still using red and orange. What’s that Italian football team that plays in red and orange…

PowerPoint is not only an ordeal for the audience, it’s also counter-productive for the speaker. But hey, it’s easy. And possibly it impresses your boss.

There are times when I think audiences are too soft on speakers. Yes, I know we’re all terribly polite and well mannered and very British. But isn’t it just a bit bloody rude to bore people senseless for 45 minutes simply because you couldn’t be bothered to do enough preparation or write an interesting speech?

Maybe speakers who use PowerPoint should be stigmatised. Maybe we could make them stand outside between presentations. Smokers at one side of the main entrance, PowerPoint addicts at the other.

Anyway, I’m off. I’ve two new boards having their first meetings this week. I need to prepare a brief intro, outline the agenda, give a dozen people an overview of the long term vision. Where’s my laptop? I could use…

Or maybe I could jot down about twenty words on a sheet of A4 and then look everyone in the eye – and build a relationship with people, not with Toshiba.

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8 comments

  1. Steven Partridge · September 24, 2010

    I agree. But maybe it’s just because I’m not very good at operating Power Point while speaking in public!

  2. michaeleriksson · September 24, 2010

    Slide-shows are basically good for one thing: Saving time and effort where the traditional speaker would have written something on the blackboard. Today’s slide-show centric talks are often pointless—alas, not PowerPoint-less.

  3. Dave Rawlings · September 24, 2010

    Don’t blame Microsoft (this time!). Blame 3M.
    Slide-shows used to be just that: slides. Specifically 35mm transparencies, every one of which would have been a photograph. Then the overhead projector came on the scene – a product that 3M invented just so they could use the big lenses they’d developed – and presentations became text-based (because it was very difficult to get a photo onto an OH film). This then infected the earlier format as well. I can remember making 35mm slides of bulleted lists just so I could show the odd photo as well!
    Powerpoint is very sophisticated and can produce pretty well anything you could want to project on a screen – assuming you’ve got something worth projecting.
    Sorry to bring down the mood with such a nerdy response. I think I’ve got a presentation on it somewhere …

    • edreidyork · September 24, 2010

      Dave – undoubtedly the most comprehensive comment ever received – I think I should be considering awarding a prize. Look forward to seeing your presentation….!

  4. Rob Brooks · September 24, 2010

    Love the line about standing with the smokers!

  5. Pingback: How Microsoft killed the art of public speaking- Ed Reid’s Blog | World class presentation skills
  6. Pingback: How Microsoft killed the art of public speaking- Ed Reid's Blog
    • edreidyork · September 13, 2012

      Hi Jim – thanks for those kind words. Always good to get some clear-thinking commentary.

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