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March 24, 2010

'Slide talks' as contemporary theatre

I turned 50 a few weeks back. There's no reason for me to tell you that other than someone gave me a copy of David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries as a present. It looks like a good read though I haven't started it yet - but flicking through it earlier today (it's not a novel so I think that's allowed!) I noticed the following passage on PowerPoint which I quite liked:

A History of PowerPoint

I do a talk about the computer presentation program PowerPoint at the University of California in Berkeley for an audience of IT legends and academics. I have, over a couple of years, made little "films" in this program normally used by businesspeople or academics for slide shows and presentations. In my pieces I made the graphic arrows and the corny backgrounds dissolve and change without anyone having to click on the next slide. These content-less "presentations" run by themselves. I also attached music files---sound tracks---so the pieces are like little abstract art films that play off the familiar (to some people) style of this program. I removed, or rather never included, what is usually considered "content," and what is left is the medium that delivers that content. In a situation like this one here in Berkeley one is usually asked to talk about one's work, but rather than do that I have decided to tell the history of the computer program itself. I tell who invented it and who refined it and I offer some subjective views on the program---my own and those of its critics and supporters.

I am terrified. Many of the guys that originally turned PowerPoint into a software program are present. What are they going to think of what I did with their invention? Well, couldn't they just get up to talk about it? They could call me out and denounce me!

Luckily, I'm not talking about the details of the programming but about the ubiquity of the software and how, because of what it does and how it does it, it limits what can be presented---and therefore what is discussed. All media do this to some extent---they do certain things well and leave other things out altogether. This is not news, but by bringing this up, reminding everyone, I hope to help dispel the myth of neutrality that surrounds many software programs.

I also propose that a slide talk, the context in which this software is used, is a form of contemporary theater---a kind of ritual theater that has developed in boardrooms and academia rather than on the Broadway stage. No one can deny that a talk is a performance, but again there is a pervasive myth of objectivity and neutrality to deal with. There is an unspoken prejudice at work in those corporate and academic "performance spaces" that performing is acting and therefore it's not "real." Acknowledging a talk as a performance is therefore anathema. I want to dispel this myth of authenticity somewhat, in an entertaining and gentle way.

The talk goes fine. I can relax, they're laughing. Bob Gaskins, Dennis Austin, and Peter Norvig are all here. Bob Gaskins was one of the guys who refined the original program and realized its potential. Bob declined to be introduced, so I stick with a picture of a concertina when I mention his name. (He's retired and buys and sells antique concertinas now.) That gets a laugh. He tells me afterward that he likes the PowerPoint-as-theater idea, which is a relief. I mean, there is a lot of hatred for this program out there, and a lot of people laugh at the mere mention of bullet points, so he must feel kind of vulnerable.

In working on these pieces, and others, I have become aware that there is a pyramid of control and influence that exists between text, image, and sound. I note that today we give text a preferential position: a label under an image "defines" that image even if it contradicts what we can see. I wonder, in a time before text became ubiquitous, was image (a symbol, a gesture, a sign) the most influential medium? Did sound---singing, chanting, rhythm---come in second, and text, limited as it might have been thousands of years ago, come in third? Was text once a handmaiden to image and sound and then gradually managed to usurp their places and take control? Did the pyramid of communicative power at some point become inverted?

Wittgenstein famously said, "The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for." I am a prisoner of my language.

This presupposes that conscious thought cannot happen without verbal or written language. I disagree. I sense a lot of communication goes on nonverbally---and I don't mean winks and nods. I mean images get ahold of us, as do sounds. They grab and hold us emotionally. Smells too. They can grip in a way that is hard to elucidate verbally. But maybe for Ludwig it just wasn't happening. Or maybe because he couldn't express what sounds, smells, and images do in words he chose to ignore them, to deny that they were communicating.

I like the notion of "presentation as performance" and have increasingly come to see things that way myself. One of the reasons I don't consider myself to be a particularly good presenter is that I'm not a particularly good performer.  I get too nervous and am typically not able to marshal my thoughts clearly or consistently enough.  That said, it is certainly the case that the presentations of mine that I consider to be my best are those where I was able to lose myself in the material - when stuff just flows, something cuts in and takes over.

Role models for good performances/talks are also rather more in our faces than they used to be. (This can be seen as being both good and bad since it highlights how good others can be and probably raises expectations across the board a little.)  I'm thinking particularly of TED talks here.  It strikes me that the Ten Commandments for TED speakers are a good indication of the general move from 'talk' to 'performance'.

And thinking specifically about PowerPoint, it seems to me that the role of the 'slides' in the performance is now a little confused.  I don't know when Byrne wrote this piece but I suspect it was before (or in the absence of knowledge about) the rise of Slideshare.  My slides are certainly part of my 'performance' (such as it is) - and the whole trend for and discussion about the use of image-heavy rather than text-heavy slides is part of that - but if I give my performance in front of a room of, say, 50 people, but then have my slides viewed 5000 times on Slideshare, where is the major impact taking place?  Do I design my slides for the 'performance' or for the 'record'?  Do I create a separate set of slides for each?

I think one now has to acknowledge that the slides live on (in a very significant way) after the performance has been given and design accordingly.

PS.  Noting Byrne's use of the phrase content-less "presentations" - I've seen plenty of those where the slides have lots of text on them! :-)


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Interesting point... From my perspective, the speaker's primary responsibility is to the audience physically sat before them, regardless of its size in relation to potential hordes of future slideshare viewers.

That audience has devoted far more of their time and attention to you and the event at which you are presenting than the visitor to slideshare has... and the physical audience member is far less able to skip quickly to a new presentation if yours fails to meet their expectations... ;-)

My slides have tended toward text-lite/less for a number of years... but I do increasingly find myself benefitting from a feature of Apple's Keynote when they make the transition to slideshare - the PDF that Keynote generates *includes* the on-screen cues and notes that were visible to *me* during my presentation, but hidden from the audience. It's not a rich narrative by any means, but it does bring some of the meaning to the images that the physical audience (hopefully!) got from my voice.

Thanks for this! The notion of a "pyramid of control and influence that exists between text, image, and sound" makes me think of scientific illustration, and the places where images have advanced science. Repeatability of images came after repeatability of text in the history of printing. So it's a rich area of study.

I'd like to finesse Paul's comment: "the speaker's primary responsibility is to the audience physically sat before them".

The speaker's ONLY responsibility is to the audience sat before them IF the meeting is closed, and the organisers do not wish information to escape beyond the physcial boundaries of the meeting.

The speaker's MAIN responsibility is to the virtual attendees/browsers if the meeting is being heavily augmented with Twitter correspondents, live blogs, video streaming and a Web-based record of presentation materials. In such cases, a significant fraction of those present may actually be disseminators and distributors for a wider audience, rather than passive consumers.

In most cases, the speaker has MIXED responsibilities and needs to judge their message rather finely. At the moment (March 2010) it is common for the presentation materials from the meeting to find their way onto the web, but not the performance videos. In such cases, you have to make your slides self-explanatory, or more likely, provide an enhanced version for online, after-the-fact audiences. For me, this may mean providing a rather wordy orientation slide at the beginning to tell people the missing story. This is perhaps somewhat lazy :-)

Oh yes, and can plan to be more scrupulous about the copyright of all those exciting images you "found on the Web" if you start off with the expectation that you're talking to a Web audience :-)

PS Pecha kucha is a nightmare in an online scenario without performance capture :-)

I'd like to finesse Les's comment that "The speaker's MAIN responsibility is to the virtual attendees/browsers if the meeting is being heavily augmented with ..."

At last year's IWMW 2009 event we made a decision to try to treat the remote audience as 'first class citizens'. This meant that the speaker's slides were made available on Slideshare in advance of the talks, the plenary talks were live-streamed, a backchannel was provided and well-publicised, someone had official responsibility for providing a textual summary of the talks on Twitter, members of the audience were asked to use a microphone to ask questions (for the benefits of the remote audience) and we responded where possible to concerns raised by the remote audience (we were alerted that people weren't always using the mike, and ensured that we addressed that).

The next stage is to treat 'future audiences' as first class citizens, and that might include the speedy uploading of videos and perhaps use of Twitter-generated captioning.

We could turn around Paul's comment that "That audience has devoted far more of their time and attention to you and the event at which you are presenting than the visitor to slideshare has" by arguing that the remote audience is more environmentally-friendly and as they miss out on the social aspects of conferences they should be compensated by enhancing their experiences.

Of course there remains the question of the business model for providing the resources to support the experiences for such remote audiences.

To respond, perhaps more to Brian than to Les...

If I've given up (at least) a day of my time, paid to travel, (perhaps) paid to attend, and committed to sit on the most uncomfortable chairs imaginable for a day of presentations, I expect the speaker to talk to *me*... not to some freeloader sat in the comfort of their home or office, perusing the presentation at their leisure!

The freeloader can have the leftovers... not the best bits. ;-)

paul - in the future you will not be required to travel or sit in uncomfortable chairs.. just as most UFC fans watch the sport via pay-per-view so will audiences of slide talks

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