PowerPoint Is Not an Excuse

Posted inFeatured
Thumbnail for PowerPoint Is Not an Excuse

In 1987, I was living in Chicago doing stage management and production work for small theaters in the metro area, but I knew enough about computers to help designers typeset their work in Aldus PageMaker. Then PowerPoint shipped. It was one of the brand-new toys in desktop publishing fueled by Genigraphics, a commercial slide-printing service that took PowerPoint files sent via modem (2400K baud!) and then printed them overnight. When sales reps found out that I could create their presentations in PowerPoint with full-color graphics and bold typography on a Mac II, then deliver printed slides via FedEx the following morning, I was flooded with requests to make deck after deck. It was the dawn of modern-day presentation graphics, now a legitimate design specialty.

These days, slide decks are everywhere: in yearly shareholder meetings, executive staff briefings, even daily status meetings. They’ve gone mainstream in the form of dynamic presentations at the TED conference. And from the beginning, Mark and Nancy Duarte have been at the forefront of the medium.

Duarte Design, based in Mountain View, California, started in 1988 when Mark Duarte bought a Mac Plus and replied to a two-line listing in the San Jose Mercury News for a desktop publishing job. It was for Apple. Since then, the Duartes have created presentations for Sun Microsystems and Adobe, but they are best known for building the presentation at the center of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, which provided a crucial backdrop for an emotionally charged topic. They also collaborated with journalist Michael Pollan for his presentation about the food and farming industries at the PopTech conference last October.

Back in the 1990s, the Duartes preferred Aldus Persuasion, one of PowerPoint’s main competitors, because it had features such as color palettes, builds, and Bézier curves that would not appear in PowerPoint until years later. But they’ve created presentations in PowerPoint, Keynote—even Symantec’s defunct More application, which pushed the available computing power to the point that it would create delayed transitions that looked like animations. For the first two years of JavaOne, Nancy says, “We had to create slides as hard-coded HTML pages because Sun hadn’t built StartOffice yet.” These days, the concepts of builds, animation paths, color palettes, dynamic drawing tools, and other nuts and bolts can be found in nearly all presentation software.

But before they get into the software, they start with the most basic tools: pen, paper, and whiteboards. “We start away from the computer,” Nancy says. “We created a presentation map that we give to our clients to facilitate them getting through. It’s all sticky notes and thinking—thinking about the audience, thinking about how they’re going to build a bridge between themselves and their audience.” They focus on a few key questions: What’s the big idea? Where is the audience at the beginning? Where should the audience be at the end?

It comes down to the story. Presentations are an inherently personal medium in which a good presenter tells a story from a human point of view and helps the audience relate to the material emotionally. Nancy clearly sees herself as a mentor, offering regular seminars and classes throughout the year.

One such student, a manager at a data-security company, first spoke about his job very matter-of-factly. After spending time learning how to tell stories, he retooled his presentation to talk about a local police officer he knew, what that officer did to protect his neighborhood, and what an admirable job he had done serving his community. By the end of the presentation, he had turned his data-security job into the digital equivalent of the police officer and, in doing so, created a more human point of view on what he does day-to-day for his clients.

It helps to be funny, but all successful presentations have what Nancy calls the “S.T.A.R.” moment—“something they’ll always remember.” It can be a physical prop, like Steve Jobs pulling a MacBook Air out of a manila envelope, or a video, like the clips of floods Al Gore screened to show the impact of the melting polar ice caps.

In short, good stories make good presentations. While that sounds straightforward, the execution is often more difficult. Nancy suggests finding a metaphor, and she has a handy one of her own. “It’s a bit like sailing, like when you are going against the wind,” she says. “You have to tack back and forth, back and forth, to make progress. To do this in a presentation, you make a point, then a counterpoint. Point and counterpoint.”

The gulf of Mexico
Map - Gulf Of Mexico
52% US crude oil

Slides from a 2008 presentation for Gulf Networks, which attempts to motivate policy makers to secure the Gulf of Mexico as a marine sanctuary.

For more information, visit Duarte Design at blog.duarte.com.