Last month, I was at a weekend-long meeting which was filled with academics doing academic-y things, namely presenting PowerPoints with the ever-famous Death by PowerPoint recipe. Being trained in the forensics (speech) traditions we were taught never to disrespect a speaker; always pay attention, do not read the newspaper or do other things and to be an attentive listener. Although those were the directions from our speech coach in 1995, I know that those life-lessons translate to 2015 and it took everything in my power to stay off my shiny iPhone and my very active Instagram app during the meeting.
Fast-forward to the last lunch of the weekend and I was seated next to one of the main presenters who also happened to be one of the biggest users of Death by PowerPoint. #boring. He was a great human being, an exquisite conversationalist, a PhD-trained philosopher turned administrator at a small university, and an all-around nice guy--he was just not any good at making presentations. No sweat right?
As the conversation wore on the nice philosopher got around to asking me about my work and my role at my institution. I shyly told my new colleague that I am a speech communication professor and my area of research is PowerPoint and audience connection. To which he replied with a chuckle, "Well, this weekend I've probably violated all you teach your students." What?!?!!! You mean to tell me this guy knew better? Yep. Did you violate everything we teach the students? Yep.
This wasn't really new news to me. When chatting with hundreds of people on planes, in classrooms, faculty meetings, and conferences, I will divulge my profession and my areas of research and those folks will often make mention of their own PowerPoint prowess--"the students think I'm boring," or "I need you to come consult with our company," or "I need help." This has always led me to the conclusion that people inherently know something is wrong with their visual enhancement tools--they simply may not know how to fix the problem or take time to do so. I have always been OK with this, gladly handing over my card and offering assistance in my personal quest to rid this world of bad PowerPoint presentations. I was always OK with this until... last month.
I made the decision after talking to my new friend at that meeting that actively knowing that one is making a poor presentation and then forcing me to sit through it is an act of disrespect. It disrespects my time, it disrespects my intelligence, and it disrespects the presenter's own intelligence. This speaker knew he was committing PowerPoint atrocities and he went ahead and did so anyway--and fully admitted to it during lunch.
Why do we allow this game to continue? Go to meeting, listen to bad speaker, not say anything--repeat. I do not believe it is out of respect that we do not say anything to the presenter, because looking around a room of bored audience members finds them on their cell phones and laptops fully disrespecting presenters anyway. So, why do we continue this dance? It floors me that we allow ourselves to sit through horrible presentations where we learn nothing and retain very little.
What is also odd to me is that we do not stand for the wasting of our time in other arenas. For example, a door-to-door canvasser comes to our house on a Sunday--we all but slam the door in their face. The high school kids running the supermarket register ask us to open a rewards card and we treat them like they've kicked us in the throat. Telemarketers call us to follow-up on our stay at the Hilton and we hang up on them, when we probably should tell them that charging for the Internet is a bit archaic. The point is--we have taken a stand against time wasters in other aspects of our lives, why do we allow bad presenters to keep on clicking along?
Don't get me wrong, my research has shown me that there were bad presenters before the advent of PowerPoint in 1990 and there will continue to be bad presenters. At least before the nineties they were forced to try and feign eye-contact when reading to us from a script. Now, that script has been thrown on an LCD screen and it is from there that they read it to us. Problem is, I can read faster than a presenter can speak, thus removing the one piece of suspense that remained in crummy speeches of yesteryear. Sigh.
As Rent so nicely informed us there are 525,600 minutes in a year. Imagine these minutes as the "bank" of life you have to live inside the confines of a year. Imagine now you have to sit through 10 awful 60-ish-minute presentations. Now your "bank of life" is down to 524,999 minutes. Yikes! Our life spends fast, doesn't it?
I used to think I was being super-respectful sitting through boring PowerPoint presentations, that was what the speech coaches taught us was the pinnacle of professional-acting audience members. But now, after realizing that speakers actively disregard me as an audience member--I'm out. No more polite nods. No more mental grocery lists in my head while pretending to be interested in the back of your head when you read to me from an LCD screen. Nope. I only have 525,600 minutes of life to spend this year and I am no longer going to spend them sitting through awful presentations. It is simply disrespectful to me and my time. I will quietly excuse myself to the bathroom and not come back. After all, they call Instagram a mobile application.
In the larger scheme of things I want people to improve. I want to help them. I want to solve the problem and change the culture. All it takes is 20 minutes of Googling to find tips on good PowerPoint presentations. While we can complain about bad presenters all day long, it also takes some nudging from audience members. We have to not stand for our time to be wasted. While I would never advocate disrespecting a presenter, I do advocate that we stand-up for our time--and proceed to the nearest exit. Perhaps that will send a message--no more Death by PowerPoint please.
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