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Software can't repair sheer hot air: Yet PowerPoint is trendy way to say little at great length
[April 27, 2006]

Software can't repair sheer hot air: Yet PowerPoint is trendy way to say little at great length

(News & Observer, The (Raleigh, NC) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Apr. 27--RALEIGH -- Some of the world's most satisfying naps, deepest daydreams and most elaborate notebook doodles are inspired by the following phrase:

"I'll just queue up this PowerPoint presentation. ..."

No conference, business confab, City Hall gabfest or sixth-grade classroom can escape the Microsoft software that turns an ordinary speech into a carnival of bullet points, graphics and sound effects.

You've seen it work before: It's a glorified slide show flashed via computer to a display screen.

Stop 10 bureaucrats on a Triangle sidewalk and chances are excellent all 10 sat through at least one presentation today. And they are bitter about it.

Last week, a Wake County planner fired up PowerPoint to explain the unified development ordinance.

A day later, Raleigh City Council members sat through a slide show on a 10-year plan to end homelessness. It didn't exactly tug heartstrings. More like eyelids.

"It does become somewhat tiresome to watch people read their presentations to us," said council member Philip Isley, a PowerPoint veteran. "Especially when it's 44 slides."

Designed in 1984, the software was released for Apple Macintosh computers before Microsoft bought it for $14 million in 1990.

The newest version costs $229, or $109 for an upgrade, but it comes bundled with the ubiquitous Microsoft Office system, so it is available to just about any curious adult or child with a homework assignment.

Now that PowerPoint has 400 million customers worldwide, by Microsoft's estimate, and with the software coming already installed in many computers, its influence is hard to overstate.

It saves time. It's easy to use.

That's what makes PowerPoint so tempting. With some basic tutoring, the most jittery public speaker can put on an exciting show -- in theory.

The consequence: It gives people with very little to say a tool to say it at great length.

"Less is more," said Rick Rocchetti, Raleigh's training director, who has long experience with the technology, both in the city and while working at GlaxoSmithKline. "Much less is more. There is an etiquette around it, and most people don't get it."

In Cary, speakers at municipal meetings actually must conform to a list of PowerPoint rules, which govern everything from the size of a font to the color of a background.

Thoughts transmuted

Around the Triangle, the software seems to show up everywhere. A neighborhood group used it at a Chapel Hill Town Council meeting to object to a street widening.

But once the meat of any presentation gets fed into the machine, critics say, it comes out in uniform bullets three or four words long.

Speakers tend to read straight off their slides.

"It crunches all our thinking down into this one type of package," said Steve Peha, president of Teaching that Makes Sense, education consultants based in Carrboro. He laments that schoolchildren spend more time programming and less time learning to do research and write.

Barbara Busey, a consultant in Charlotte who wrote the speakers' guide "Stand Out When You Stand Up," has another serious objection: The speaker gets lost behind the slide show.

"Am I buying your glitzy, fancy-shmancy PowerPoint slides?" she asks, "or am I buying you?"

Tool, not cure-all

PowerPoint backers say there is nothing wrong with the technology that the user isn't shoving into it.

If the results seem too one-size-fits-all, it's because too many rubes assume that PowerPoint will automatically make them a good speaker. It is a tool -- not a cure-all, says Scott Ward, communications professor at American University in Washington.

If you drive a Maserati 600 mph into a tree, he says, you don't blame the Maserati for its power. You should have driven it slower.

Despite drab lectures at council, Isley, a lawyer, uses PowerPoint in court.

"Closing argument, man," he said "You go 'Boom.' What do we see here today? The evidence shows this."

But in cases of PowerPoint overload, there is one sure cure.

Switch on the lights.

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