An Experiment on the Effects of PowerPoint Deprivation

Winston Churchill was a poor student as a boy, so he was placed in the lowest form, what today we would call remedial or special education. Here’s what he said about the experience in his autobiography: My Early Life, 1874-1904:

“[B]y being so long in the lowest form I gained an immense advantage over the cleverer boys. They all went on to learn Latin and Greek and splendid things like that. But I was taught English. We were considered such dunces that we could learn only English. Mr. Somervell — a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great — was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing — namely, to write mere English. He knew how to do it. He taught it as no one else has ever taught it. Not only did we learn English parsing thoroughly, but we also practised continually English analysis. . . Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence — which is a noble thing. And when in after years my schoolfellows who had won prizes and distinction for writing such beautiful Latin poetry and pithy Greek epigrams had to come down again to common English, to earn their living or make their way, I did not feel myself at any disadvantage. Naturally I am biased in favour of boys learning English. I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat. But the only thing I would whip them for would be not knowing English. I would whip them hard for that.”

That story shows how being “deprived” can make you better at the fundamentals, and it applies equally in our high-tech world.

Technology is a wonderful thing which can bring tremendous improvements to how we do things – but at the price of losing fundamental skills. Reading a map and figuring out how to get to a strange address is a lost skill thanks to GPS, for example. It works great, until your phone dies halfway there. And watching younger people try to figure out a tip without a calculator is always a source of amusement.

Another example is the effect of presentation software on presentations. I feel lucky that I learned the essentials of public speaking and presenting in the early 80s. Before 1987, humanity had not been  graced with PowerPoint, so we had to learn how to structure an argument, keep an audience’s attention on ourselves, and paint verbal pictures. We actually had to learn our material, because no one wanted to suffer the dishonor of reading from index cards. We looked people in the eye more, and we learned how to add, subtract or modify content depending on how we sensed the audience was reacting.

If you were born too late to escape the pull of PowerPoint, there’s still hope, which I’ve discovered through PowerPoint deprivation experiments I’ve run during my last four presentation training sessions.

The trick is to keep your laptop closed until the last possible moment. It’s similar to advice you’ve heard before, to begin analog and finish digital: figure out your key message and craft a rough draft of your presentation on paper (sticky notes and index cards are especially helpful for trying out different arrangements), and then rehearse it at least once before you even begin to think about your slides.

Creating your message without the distraction of choosing fonts and images, making your case without having a memory crutch, and hearing your own words out loud is extremely valuable preparation. It is a great test of your overall message and delivery. Then when you have the solid structure in place, you can add the cherry on top in the form of jazzy pictures.

It’s still a small sample size, but the sessions I’ve run so far show that the approach makes a significant difference in quality. The key difference in this approach is that your presentations are PowerPoint-enhanced, rather than PowerPoint-based. It makes you thoroughly learn your material, which builds both credibility and confidence, and it puts you back in your rightful place – controlling the presentation, not being controlled by it.

As a presentation trainer I lack one advantage that the English schoolmasters had: I can’t whip my students. But if I could, the only thing I would whip them for would be the inability to deliver a cogent and compelling presentation without slides. I would whip them very hard for that.

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