x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Death by PowerPoint also marks the demise of storytelling

Those who use computer slides to make a presentation should also realise that the clicker can be a crutch, writes Shoba Narayan.

There used to be a time when contracts were negotiated using words. Professionals met in rooms, exchanged jokes, shared information and told stories about their products – but all that began to change a generation ago.

In 1968, a shy young man named Robert Gaskins enrolled himself in the doctorate programme in the English department of the University of California, Berkeley. He wanted to specialise in Shakespeare and pursue a career as an academic.

However, the best-laid plans were upset when he discovered the computer science courses that were offered in the university’s humanities department.

Mr Gaskins started studying computer science. He began to use a computer for his studies. This parallel track between his English studies and computer science continued for 10 years until he left Berkeley. He then took up a variety of jobs in Silicon Valley.

One of his jobs was to buy computer components from all over the world. While buying chips from Germany and motherboards from Japan, Mr Gaskins began to note the various styles of presentations that his suppliers made to him as they pitched for his business.

He collected the presentation notes and noticed similarities between them. Some were handwritten, some were drawn, some were typed out. But all of them had borders, bullet points, margins and graphics. It seemed that people all over the world thought about presentations in a similar manner.

In 1984, Mr Gaskins was recruited by a firm called Forethought.

He was part of a group of programmers who were assigned to come up with software for the new Graphics User Interface (GUI) computers such as the first-generation Apple Macintosh.

On August 14, 1984, Mr Gaskins wrote a two-page vision statement using all his life experiences, outlining his love for the English language, his admiration for presentation techniques and how he had grown up in an audio-visual household.

This statement provided the outline for a program that would eventually transform the world. What he didn’t realise was that this program that he was creating would also eventually kill oral storytelling in the corporate world. He called it PowerPoint. Actually, he called it Presenter, until Microsoft acquired it and changed the name.

Today, pretty much everyone in the corporate world uses slide presentations aided by PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi or any of the other similar programs that exist.

What has been lost in the process is the skill of the old-fashioned raconteurs who shared their beliefs and goals through the use of stories and descriptions.

Perhaps the time has come for the pendulum to swing back in their favour.

Some forward-looking companies are embracing the narrative rather than the bullet-point.

They have asked their top employees to use the rhythms of the story to convey messages and form a connection.

But stories do much more than that. They are rooted in culture, they foster connection and trust, they provide context, they engender creativity and they liven up meetings.

There are situations in any company when a senior executive needs to inspire. In those instances, you have to communicate the core values of the company. But in order for your audience to buy your message, you need to establish trust – and trust requires a connection.

Connections can be made in many ways: through a shared interest, a shared history or a shared story.

So, by all means, use slides to make a presentation. But also realise that the clicker is a crutch.

Every culture began with stories and as Joan Didion said in her wonderful essay: The White Album, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

The trick is to use these stories to live and love, but also at work.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir