Tuesday, 31 July 2012

It's PowerPoint's 25th birthday. How many happy returns?

Twenty five years ago today - July 31 1987 - PowerPoint was sold to Microsoft for $14million. Like any toddler it took a few years to find its feet, but by the early 90s it was being bundled together with other Microsoft products and soon became ubiquitous.  The latest announcement coming out of Seattle - together with a first-ever quarterly loss - is that PowerPoint is now installed on more than a billion computers across the world.

So PowerPoint can blow out its 25 candles today feeling pretty satisfied with itself - unless of course any party poopers whisper anything like 'Death by.........'.  The fact is that we all use it, but many people hate it and plenty of insomniacs have discovered a whole new form of treatment while watching a presentation.

But you can't blame PowerPoint say its supporters, it's bad use of PowerPoint that sends audiences to sleep or worse.  There's a lot of  truth in that, but today's landmark birthday does make me look back and think Oh PowerPoint, you could have made so much more of yourself, if only you had had proper parenting.

The people who actually gave birth to PowerPoint were Robert Gaskins and Dennis Austin, and if you take a look at Gaskins' web site www.robertgaskins.com (click on the link below) you will find what is effectively the first ever PowerPoint presentation. It's the one that the duo used to make the case for their new product and to sell it to Microsoft. And it's horrible!  It's page after page of dense text that is quite hard work to read off a page let alone view via projection onto a screen.  It's almost everything that would now be regarded as bad presentation practice.

I believe the reason why PowerPoint is so often regarded with derision can be traced back to these roots.  Gaskins and Austin invented a new piece of technology and everybody got so excited that it was very soon snapped up for millions of dollars and let loose on the world. What was forgotten along the way was good presentation practice.  All the techniques that we used to learn before the advent of PowerPoint about how to engage an audience were still just as important; arguably they were now more important because this new piece of technology had the potential to compete with us for attention.

For the record, I think PowerPoint is a fantastic aid for the presenter, as long as it is seen as an aid - to support you as a speaker to get your point across.  You are the show, it has a supporting role to play at best.  So happy birthday PowerPoint, but please remember you are a tool, not an end in yourself!

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