Death by PowerPoint

I first heard about Garr Reynold’s Presentation Zen book from our IT Director at school.  He leant it to me and I read it cover to cover in a single sitting…that’s not so impressive as it’s got a lot of pictures and “negative space.”  It is one of those bellweather books that represents (hopefully) a paradigm shift from the traditional “Death by PowerPoint” to a thoughtful, brain-research supported infusion of digital literacy into the classroom.


Of course, PowerPoint of any kind can serve as a glorified lecture bell and whistle, but if used correctly in the service of stories and promoting multi-modal links to student learning styles.  But Reynold’s book is more than simply a book about PowerPoint or Keynote presentations and like Zen itself, has an aesthetic sensibility to accompany and compliment the philosophy it espouses.  The book can be read simply as an ode to creative construction in an era where design and delivery are increasingly the coins of the realm.

My father used to work in the marketing department of the food division of Proctor & Gamble back in the 1970s; it was the heyday of the JIF, Pringles, Crisco and Duncan Hines brands.  Recently, reminiscing about that time I told my father I still carried a level of brand-loyalty for those P&G items and was surprised when my father informed me that P&G had shed those marquee products over the past twenty years so that none of them were produced by P&G anymore.  Beyond the surprise, I was curious why P&G would have dumped these household names that companies spend millions of dollars to develop.  He told me that he started to see the writing on the wall even back in the mid-70s when executives kept asking about the “-er” factor in the products; by “-er” factor, they meant “bigger”, “better”, “faster”, “cleaner”, “flakier”, etc.  These “-er” factors were what manufacturers developed to distinguish their product from the competition.  Back in the early part of the 20th century you could find an “-er” factor to exploit and gain market share against your competitor.  However, by the 1970s, the R&D and production methods used by all the major multinationals all but eliminated the “-er” factor.  JIF wasn’t really any different than Skippy.  Duncan Hines had no “-er” on Betty Crocker.  There was nothing left to develop and thus no new marketshare to exploit…beyond design and in a low-cost item like peanut butter or cake mix, there was no shinier box or logo that would really alter the playing field.  And without that “-er” factor, the brand was stuck and from a stock standpoint, offered no potential value.  Thus, over the course of 20 years, P&G sold off these once marquee brands.

My point here is that what happened with P&G’s food division has happened across the board in modern corporate manufacturing, there really is no “-er” factor that a computer company or software company can offer that truly improves their product over their nearest competitors.  Nobody really claims that Coke and Pepsi; Nike and Adidas; or Apple or PC are wildly different offerings…well, except maybe Apple devotees.  They will each get you more or less the same thing.  What Coke, Nike and Apple seem to have taken the upper hand with is design; whether technical or marketing.  None of these companies market their product, they market an ethos [Just do it!], a philosophy [Coke adds life!], an outlook [iLife to iEverything].  The Onion made fun of this very thing years ago with a hysterical piece entitled “Nike to Cease Manufacturing Products” with the piece going on to say “Citing creative confinement and a desire to focus exclusively on what it does best, the Nike Corporation announced Monday it will cease manufacturing athletic shoes and other sports-related merchandise in order to devote itself fully to the creation of state-of-the-art television advertisements.”

We live in an age where design has become the leverage point for success.  There were dozens of mp3 players but only one iPod.  There are literally hundreds of cell phones but only one (well, now four) iPhones.  They are immediately recognizable and infinitely preferably to all others.  This is true, too, of a post-Presentation Zen PowerPoint.  Once you have seen the design approach, the aesthetics of message crafting you can’t go back to anything else.  Once you’ve seen an Apple, everything else just pales.  Once you’ve recognized that Zen is the only way to PPT.

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