- Because every story needs a hero
Because every story needs a hero, the hero of this story is going to be Robert Gaskins, the man who invented PowerPoint.
PowerPoint, as you will almost definitely know, is the presentation tool that comes bundled with the Microsoft Office suite of programs. PowerPoint lets you create slide shows which can feature text, images, graphics and videos. You can use these slides shows to present business reports, financial plans, sales pitches, scientific findings and just about anything else.
Robert Gaskins is going to be the hero of this story even though this story isn’t really about PowerPoint. Or not only about PowerPoint. This story is also about Keynote, which is Apple’s answer to PowerPoint, and Google Slides, which is Google’s answer to PowerPoint.
More broadly, this story is about the context in which these presentation tools exist, and the context that these presentation tools create.
2. I’m having some sort of breakdown in Clerkenwell, London
I’m having some sort of breakdown in Clerkenwell, London. Or in Canary Wharf. Or in Camden.
A couple of years before I was having the same breakdown in Soho and Kensington. In a year or so from now I’ll be having it in and around Shoreditch and Spitalfields and Brick Lane. Occasionally I’ve been or will be lucky enough to be having the breakdown while on business trips to Stockholm or Frankfurt or Amsterdam.
It’s the same breakdown I’ve been having, on and off, for the last ten or twelve years.
The breakdown doesn’t involve drugs or sex or problem drinking or anything exciting at all. It consists of me leaving my desk at two-fifty-five in the afternoon every day and going for a walk for half an hour. Just walking out of the office and wandering around the streets trying to work out what the fuck is going on. It’s a low-key breakdown.
The breakdown is on account of cognitive dissonance.
Somebody should write a walking guide for people having breakdowns at work. A psychogeography of all the places you can go when you need to wander around staring vacantly at stuff, with tears of frustration in your eyes, at around three in the afternoon, in business districts across the world.
A guidebook for journeys that don’t go anywhere. An encyclopedia of circular routes.
There must be hundreds of thousands of us at it.
The cognitive dissonance comes from trying to make sense of a job that makes no sense, doing work that no one wants or needs, for companies who only employ. people like me because they don’t understand what I do.
I don’t even understand exactly what it is I do. And in that I’m not unlike half the people in the industry I work in.
What I do mostly is create slides that look like this:
I know, I know.
Stories and pictures and films and songs and television programs and comments and jokes and works of art and declarations of love that are only important inasmuch as they can fit into a variety of containers.
Inasmuch as they can be quantified, monetized and spread across a variety of platforms.
It’s not as if I’m particularly good at the job I don’t understand and that nobody else understands. I ended up doing it by accident, while trying to do something supposedly more worthwhile – which was creating the actual content itself, instead of creating presentations about the content. Now I’m no longer qualified to do anything else. The fact that I’m also not qualified to do the actual job that I’m doing is, apparently, beside the point. I am billable, and that is everything. I am an entry on a spreadsheet. With the PowerPoint presentations – the endless PowerPoint presentations – to prove it.
So every day at five to three I get up and walk out of the office, wherever the office I’m currently working in is, and nobody minds because nobody understands, exactly, who I am or what it is that I do, and I wander the streets. And then half-an-hour later I come back and sit down and try to start all over again, all over again.
3. Everyone hates PowerPoint
Everyone hates PowerPoint. Everyone knows that PowerPoint is evil. Everyone has known it since about 1996.
- PowerPoint is evil because it reduces everything to easily digestible bullet points
- It has dumbed down corporate and political and civil culture
- Its overuse in military planning was responsible for the failure of the US-led Afghanistan campaign 2003-2012
- It has even been accused of contributing to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster
[Disclaimer: PowerPoint almost certainly did not contribute to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, and its role in the failure of the US-led Afghanistan campaign was probably marginal, at most.]
With a PowerPoint presentation half the information is missing. This is because the slides in a PowerPoint presentation are only supposed to contain the minimum amount of information to support what the speaker is saying. They’re not designed to be read and shared on their own. A PowerPoint presentation isn’t about sharing useful information. It isn’t about informing the audience at all. A PowerPoint presentation is a sales tool.
Its job is persuasion.
A successful PowerPoint presentation works because it makes the complicated seem simple – usually by ignoring or throwing away every fact and issue that doesn’t support the presentation’s case.
In this way, a PowerPoint presentation is not unlike a work of art.
4. Dieter (mentor #1)
Dieter (mentor #1) was German and brilliant. He was a philosopher and master of rhetoric who’d trained at some esoteric business foundation in the Bavarian Alps. By the time I met him he was already hiring out his skills to evil multinational corporations for huge amounts of money. I think he liked the moral challenge.
I can’t remember what we bonded over, but it might have been a shared love of the films of Takeshi Kitano and late period Jean Luc Godard. Which will give you some of idea of the sort of people we were, back then.
Oh, we were wasted in those jobs.
Dieter’s PowerPoint presentations were meticulously crafted machines for persuading people to accept his point of view. He taught me how to think straight and how to build an argument over a series of slides, how to lead the viewer by the hand until the conclusion was inevitable.
His audiences never had a chance.
We once had a gig together at an Italian tobacco company, Dieter and I. Everyone at the tobacco company smoked. It was company policy or something. They had ornate cigarette dispensers on the tables in all the meeting rooms. Those were the days.
In the event, Dieter and I smoked so much that eventually all the people who worked there had to ask us to stop.
They were starting to worry for their health.
5. Meanwhile, my actual writing career
Meanwhile my actual writing career, my career as a content creator – which is supposed to be the thing that justifies me doing a job that I don’t know how to do for a living – has been going nowhere for years. This is mostly because I stopped writing at around the time I started working in digital communications, and started playing video games instead.
I’m still trying to write, give me that at least. In between the video games and the on-again, off-again breakdown. I’m thinking about writing. I’m having ideas.
I’m just not doing anything with them. Because none of them are any good.
They’re muddled and vague and they lack clarity and structure.
You already see where I’m going with this.
The only writing that I am doing these days, outside of the boxes and arrows in the PowerPoint presentations that fill my working hours, is when I write an article for a trade magazine or website, explaining why the whole digital communications industry is a sham built on lies and stupidity.
Generally, these articles go down surprisingly well.
Whenever I write something particularly scathing about the gigantic meaningless of the work we all do, about the terrifying emptiness of it, about the huge moral damage we’re doing to society and each other by our very existence as an industry, I usually get at least three or four new offers of work within twenty-four hours of publication. Often it’s more than three or four. If I’m having a very bad day when I write the article it might be six or seven. Once it was ten.
The other thing those articles lead to is invitations to speak at conferences and seminars and industry events. I’m terrible in social situations – terrible at networking, terrible at reading non-verbal conversational cues, all that stuff. But it turns out that I’m surprisingly good at standing up on stage and speaking to an audience
At the conferences and seminars and industry events, I walk people through PowerPoint presentations that explain why interruptive marketing is dead, why advertising is dead, why television is dead, why everything is dead. At one seminar I so excite a drunk sixty-something award-winning advertising copywriter that he comes up to me afterwards to shake my hand. He’s seen the future, he tells me. He explains to me why copywriting is dead, why words are dead, why storytelling is dead, why books are dead.
“But that wasn’t-” I start to say.
But he’s already gone.
6. Steve (mentor #2)
Steve (mentor #2) was a former ad-man who had moved over to digital when he saw which way the wind was blowing. He’d been in the communications industry since he was sixteen. He was a twenty-year veteran and he was younger than me.
Steve’s presentations, which were put together in Keynote rather than PowerPoint because Steve was a ‘creative,’ were beautiful. Every slide was an illustrated poem, a subtitled art film, a haiku scrawled on top of a magazine spread.
People would burst into tears during Steve’s pitches, would have to leave the room and pull themselves together in the toilets. People would fall in love with Steve and his impossible-to-deliver ideas, and shower him (and whatever agency he happened to be working with at the time) with money.
Steve taught me how to use emotions in my presentations. How to inspire and move and excite and enthuse an audience of jaded businesspeople. He was a great writer and a moderately good artist and he had wasted his life in an industry that had no real appreciation of either.
Eventually he had a breakdown and, I think, ran away to become a fisherman.
7. These days all the brave young digital strategists
These days all the brave young digital strategists are called Charlie and Harry and Luke and they’re all posh and bohemian and millennial and lovely. They have beards and wear polo necks and they’ve taken the slide presentation, which is their weapon of choice, to an entirely new level. They take me to Strategy Club, which is held on the first Wednesday of every month in the basement of a former council office building in Hoxton. Everyone there is a strategist of some sort. There are creative strategists and brand strategists and experience strategists and transformation strategists. Even the odd content strategist, like me, who has come to the wrong night.
Strategists used to be called ‘planners’ – back when their job was booking advertising space on billboards and on TV and in newspapers and magazines. Now they have bigger concerns. At Strategy Club the young strategists take it in turns to stand up and deliver presentations that have the potential to change the world.
I have no idea whether or not any of the young digital strategists believe a word of what they’re presenting. Likely neither do they. Likely the concepts are completely irrelevant. Belief is not what matters here. The only thing that matters is what the client will buy.
The digital strategists show us all their strategic framework development processes. These are the building blocks that the digital strategists use to create their successful and potentially world-changing strategies. The processes explain how get from the five core experience principles of the brand to the seven key emotional milestones on the purchase journey to the twelve major dramatic reversals in the marketing campaign narrative to the fifteen guiding statements that will inform the service transformation.
The slides say things like this:
These are the digital strategists’ magical formulae, their secret algorithms for creating faith in their clients. This is their intellectual property. This is what’s going to make them rich. The processes are beautiful. They’re so beautiful I want to believe in them in spite of myself. They make everything seem clear and calm. What they’re actually saying is beside the point. My world would be a better place, the slides are telling me, if I could believe in these frameworks.
If I could somehow apply them to my life.
8. Av (mentor #3)
Av (mentor #3) was American. He had been travelling the world as a consultant for the past five years, knew how to get a free penthouse suite upgrade from just about every hotel chain on the planet. He taught me how to bullshit.
He once took me for a meal at the most expensive restaurant in S–, where I got so drunk I couldn’t even taste the food I was eating, couldn’t taste the award-winning, world-beating wines.
Av’s presentations were vast. They were hundreds of slides long. There was no way anyone was ever going to read or even sit through one of Av’s presentations.
Which was exactly the point.
Whenever Av was putting a slide deck together he would trawl through his library of reports and white papers and previous presentations, and just tip them all in there –
maybe slightly reformatted to fit the particular house style, sometimes not even that. This made for terrifying and formidable presentations that looked like they contained the distilled sum of all possible knowledge on a subject. Presentations that made the client feel like they were getting their money’s worth and more beside. Presentations which, after being delivered, would never be looked at by anyone, ever again.
Which was exactly what they designed for.
In this way Av was possibly the most honest person I have ever worked with.
9. So the idea I have is this
Initially I just do it to see if anyone will notice. Just to give me something to do at 3PM every day instead of wandering around in circles outside in the snow and the wind and the rain.
I decide to start sneaking new, random concepts into my presentations.
I drop in lists of nonsensical key content attributes and rogue customer experience principles. I add made-up campaign engagement milestones. I start making tables of unconnected words and phrases, like, say, “green”, or “occulted/occluded”, or “an ecstasy of signs”, or “the new new new”, and insert them into my slides.
Slides which now look like this:
If anything my presentations are even better received than before. I get invited to present at Strategy Club and it goes down a storm. My slide decks get shared on business- and employment-oriented social networks. My date rate goes up (again).
In an attention economy meaning is communicated by surfaces. It doesn’t matter what, if anything, is behind those surfaces. There’s even a phrase for transactions and interactions that are carried out via those surfaces.
The phrase is “at the glass.”
By turning my presentations into fictions I’ve freed them from any connection to the banal realties of service delivery, of sales, of future revenue targets. I’ve lifted them from the glass and made them weightless.
But then something else starts to happen.
I start to fall in love with writing again.
10. Specifically, what I start to fall in love with again
Specifically, what I start to fall in love with again about writing is the way it breaks down into minimum units of meaning.
At first I only use PowerPoint to help me structure the stories, to help me develop the narrative. Because what is storytelling, if not structure?
I write scenes on slides and move them around, then play the presentation back to myself and watch the story unfold.
In this way the presentation works as a time-based experience, like going to see a film or a play. A slide show, a thing that you are only allowed to consume in the order in which it was designed to be watched. But as things develop I get more and more interested in what I can do with the text within each slide, the way I can treat different elements of the text as blocks.
- Bullet points
I fall madly in love with the bullet point as a way to save time and space while presenting information in a work of fiction. I discover that a few well-chosen bullets will let me do away with whole sentences and paragraphs, that sub-bullets let me do even more.
I start to write stories that look like exactly this, start performing them at storytelling evenings and festivals:
And so on.
I find myself wondering what, exactly, is the difference between a set of instructions for a story and the story itself.
And then, just like that, I jump the cognitive gap that has been causing me so much trouble, that has been causing me to spend so much time walking the same afternoon streets over and over, that has been pulling me apart.
And I know I’m going to be rich.
11. If you want to read a story that’s specifically about PowerPoint
If you want to read a story that’s specifically about PowerPoint, I can recommend ‘Sweating Bullets: Notes about Inventing PowerPoint,’ which was written by Robert Gaskins, The Man Who Invented PowerPoint.
Robert Gaskins is mostly the hero of that story too, as you would expect, but to his credit he goes out of his way to acknowledge the one hundred and eighteen other people who were also involved in the development of PowerPoint.
And he doesn’t do it in the appendices, either. He does it upfront, right at the beginning of the story. All one hundred and eighteen names.
That, I think, gives us a measure of the sort of man Robert Gaskins is.
That’s partially why I made Robert Gaskins the hero of this story, which isn’t really about PowerPoint and which doesn’t feature Robert Gaskins other than in the introduction and in this section.
Robert Gaskins seems like a decent sort of person. He’s the sort of person who should be the hero of a story. And, in the case of this story, that makes him pretty much unique.
12. There’s a reason the walls
There’s a reasons the walls of the meeting room/s at the headquarters of global investment banks are covered in Picassos and Warhols and other expensive works of art, and it has nothing to do with investments.
It has nothing to do with tax dodges either, or impressing potential customers.
It’s to remind everyone of the wonderful things that all this money can actually do. To inspire us all to greater achievement. To keep our eyes on higher and better things.
This is what I’ve convinced myself while I wait for the chance to kick off my presentation to the gathered C-suites and/or their representatives. The CXOs and CMOs and CSOs and CCOs and COOs who are going to help me spread my glorious and holy message across their wonderful organisation/s and beyond. This is what I’m holding onto, because the question I’m going to ask them is not unchallenging. The question I’m going to ask them is not un-revolutionary.
The question I’m going to ask them, in a magnificent 500+ slide PowerPoint presentation that will take hours to deliver, is this:
What if your strategy – your brand strategy, your digital strategy, your communications strategy, your customer acquisition strategy, your global growth strategy, your cross-channel marketing strategy, your experience strategy, your content strategy, your business transformation strategy – what if your strategy was the thing in and of itself?
Not the map but the actual territory.
Not the assembly instructions but the end product.
Not the notes for the story but the story itself.
What if you could be in possession of an argument so persuasive, a plan of action so all-encompassing, that delivery would become absurdly, wonderfully beside the point, a strategy that contains – that is – its own outcome, a PowerPoint presentation that removes the need for anything other than the presentation, endlessly, forever?
The afternoon sun is bouncing off the gigantic polished table. I look up at the clock on the wall and realise it’s five to three. I take a deep breath.
Then I show the first slide.
– End –
[Originally published in the fantastic Under The Influence]