Penman No. 289: PowerPeeves


Penman for Monday, February 5, 2018


I’VE NEVER used PowerPoint in my life as much as I had to this past year, largely because I’ve been asked to do many presentations—briefings, TEDTalks, and such. For the longest time, I’d resisted using PowerPoint (and its Mac counterpart, Keynote), not because I dislike visual aids, but because I felt confident that I could get my message across just by having people listen to my words and my voice.

That works—sometimes. I feel that when I’m talking to persuade—like when I spoke at the annual conference of the Writers Union of the Philippines to argue for the need to give evil a human face, or when I exhorted young writers at the Palancas to remember to write for oneself after writing for others—then direct address works better, without props or pictures.

After more than 30 years of teaching, I’ve long lost whatever shyness I may have had about public speaking—a teacher has no better tool in a classroom than his or her voice—but that doesn’t mean talking comes naturally, especially if you have to make sense. In the ten minutes or so before every class, walking down the corridor or up to my floor, I rehearse the lines I’ll be opening with, the points I have to make. It does get easier with time and practice, but every class is a performance, every audience a fresh challenge.

Perhaps it helped that, in our elementary years, we had a subject called Declamation which forced us to memorize and recite long, elaborate poems and speeches like Edwin Markham’s “The Man with the Hoe” and Mark Antony’s lament at Caesar’s funeral. We may not have understood what we were emoting about with full juvenile fervor, but—at least for me—it got rid of the stage fright, and I marveled at the fact that, if you spoke well and clearly, people listened.

Of course that was something that politicians already knew. They could whip the masses up into a maniacal frenzy—just with words. No flash cards, no graphs and charts, and yes, no PowerPoint. Not for Hitler, not for Marcos, not for… well, most other demagogues you can think of, some orange-haired presidents included. They knew that nothing could mobilize people better than fear, and nothing could stoke fear better than the imagination, such as of alien hordes and drug-crazed zombies streaming over the border. (On the other hand, the good guys could raise the dead as well with eloquently simple but moving oratory—think of Churchill’s “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech of 1940, which drew on similar remarks made much earlier by Theodore Roosevelt, not always a good guy.)

It’s tempting to suggest that if Churchill et al. had to use PowerPoint to rally the troops, the Battle of Britain would have been lost as he fidgeted, as presenters often do, with the controls and clicked back and forth between slides of Spitfires, Hurricanes, Heinkels, and Dorniers and rattled off their ranges and payloads. If Genghis Khan had to sit for a PowerPoint presentation on the economic and tourism potentials of every new territory over the horizon before he actually shouted “Advance! Kill! Plunder!”, he would never have gone past the Yellow River.

But of course today very little can happen without someone first having to plunk down a laptop, connect a medley of cables and wires, tinker with screen and clicker, and run through a cascade of slides in a coma-inducing monotone.

But I’ll admit it: there’s nothing like PowerPoint when people need to see what you’re talking about, whether it’s the tomb of Tamerlane in Samarkand, a genetically modified eggplant, or a fountain pen Jose Rizal would have written with. It’s most useful in speeches and lectures meant to inform, providing visual reinforcement for such abstract (and, these days, politically unfashionable) concepts as “human rights,” “freedom of the press,” and “territorial integrity.”

I remember being fascinated by scenes from the Bible that our Religion teacher in grade school flipped through in a roll of posters, and I’m sure we’ll all agree that the impact images produce is visceral.

That said, let me rattle off some of my pet peeves when it comes to PowerPoint presentations:

  1. Slides full of long text, which the presenters then read word for word, line by line. For heaven’s sake, summarize, condense, get to the core of things!
  2. Presenters who mumble like they were confessing their sins.
  3. Slides of cute babies, puppies, kittens, and sunsets when you’re talking about sexual harassment, Bentham Rise, or global warming.
  4. Whoosh! Swirl! Zoom! Dazzling and dizzying transitions and visual effects, accompanied by a fruit salad of colors and a library of exotic fonts.
  5. And, of course, presentations that just go on and on and on, because the presenters never bothered to do a dry run, edit their draft, or look at the clock and all the bored faces.

All yours, Genghis!


(Image from