The Future of Presentations: Conversation with Martin Conradi

Friday, August 24, 2012
posted by Geetesh Bajaj at 4:00 AM IST



Martin ConradiMartin Conradi is managing director of Showcase Presentations in London. Educated at Oundle School and Lancaster University, he spent 10 years in advertising and marketing companies and doing more than his fair share of presentations. He became fascinated by the potential for small computers as business tools and set up Rainbow Software in 1980 — probably the first company in the world entirely dedicated to computer-based business presentations. He formed Showcase Presentations Ltd in 1986 to specialise in computer-based presentation services.

In this conversation, Martin looks at the future of presentations, from a past perspective.

Geetesh: You’ve been involved with presentation software for a long, long time — tell us more about the historical perspective and where you believe the future of presenting is headed to?

Martin: Imagine watching slides on a large monitor screen with a range of properly designed proportionally spaced fonts in rich RGB colour. When you want video, it switches in automatically. And you can print out the individual slides.

Familiar? But this was our Showcase Presentation System in 1981, the first such system in the world.

We used an Apple II (16k of RAM, a 1Mhz 8-bit processor and a pair of 5-1/2″ floppy disc drives) which was in those days a pretty cool machine; we developed proportional fonts (long before the Mac); and discovered monitors capable of using RGB, so developed programmable cards to drive them. Add some great software and a remote control, and you had the world’s first computer presentation system.

And with no rules for designing computer slides we had to invent them too.

Clients claimed the system paid for itself in a single presentation.

The advent of the PC with its very basic graphics slowly strangled the Apple II as a business purchase, so in 1985 we reinvented ourselves as a service company and after over 30 years, Showcase is still going strong. We switched to General Parametric’s VideoShow — an external graphics and presentation box for the PC — and remained with this for the rest of the 1980s until the “clamshell” laptop, Windows 3 and Freelance appeared in the early 90’s; it was time to switch again.

Since then nothing fundamental has changed. Of course both hardware and software are much more powerful while at the same time easier to use. Viable alternatives to PowerPoint have continued to emerge — though mostly for only a short time. The trade-off between simplicity (for office users) and capability (for designers and other professionals) continues to tax software designers.

In 1970 I worked in a bright young ad agency and we put pictures and text on a rectangular screen to help get our arguments across to our audience. It cost a fortune and took 3 days to get the slides back. Now it costs virtually nothing to do the same thing in a few hours. The difference in the technology is huge, but the outcome is basically the same.

One advantage today is that the speaker can alter the presentation right up to the last moment but this is a double-edged sword. When presentations were slow and expensive, a lot of thought went into what was said and how it was presented. As the price of presentations has become negligible, the quality of thinking has all too often kept pace, and all the power and brilliance of the underlying technology which can produce marvels of insightful graphics to support a speaker, much too often delivers lazy argument, badly presented.

We did some research to understand better why people come to live presentations when they can often see them online much more easily. The answer was very clear: “We want to see the whites of their eyes”.

So the speaker is still — and will always be — the centre of attention; presentations will become more visual, picture-driven rather than bullet-point driven. They may even become more interactive as a younger and more computer-literate generation of management, teachers, etc., rises through the ranks.

But in 10 years’ time we will still be presenting; and the rectangular screen with words and pictures and a (mostly) live audience will still be the way to do it.

Geetesh: Presentation design moves at a much faster pace now than 10 or 20 years ago, and that clearly is an advantage — but are there thoughts you would like to share about what we can do to make this process better now and in the future?

Martin: How often have you heard people leaving a presentation saying “great slides”? “Great speaker” yes, but “great slides”, no.

A well-designed presentation — like a well-designed book — is in a sense invisible, subsumed into the unfolding story told by the presenter. A well-designed presentation helps makes any competent speaker look good — thoughtful, considered and professional.

Badly designed slides confuse the audience and risk making the speaker appear muddled and not really in control of his subject.

Good presentation design is a compromise between three things: the needs for a presentation to look consistent and coherent and present a unified argument; the need for an individual slide to “work” despite the constraints of the presentation as a whole; and the inevitable real-life pressure of last-minute edits that can wreck the integrity of carefully worked slides.

Good presentations design — like that well presented book is based on a set of rules for fonts, colors, layouts, pictures and so on. Templates and masters do a pretty good job with this provided they have been properly designed in the first place. This is easier said than done as very few designers know anything about presenting — as a group they almost never do it; and they are trained and practised in designing for paper. Web designers are little better as their skill is in designing for individuals close up to and in control of their screens, not for audiences.

But as we move away (hopefully) from the era of the bullet point and “death by PowerPoint” into a more graphic and emotionally intelligent way of presenting, the conventional template will need to develop to be less bullet-based and more picture-oriented. What will be needed will be a way of finding pictures to replace words, of integrating conceptual search engines into the heart of the program to help the user come up with visual ideas. It is pictures rather than words that get remembered. As Generation Y moves up the business ladder, this sort of shift will accelerate.

Individual slides will always be (and of course should be) susceptible to breaking away from the template in order to be made to “work” better. And I am all in favour of the “money-shot” slide which stands out from the rest and defines the presentation visually. But you can have too much a good thing and as more and more slides are treated a specials, a presentation can quickly become incoherent. Maybe someone will come up with a “conform” button and a sliding scale that can bring the slide back — intelligently and perhaps in small steps — in line with the master.

Most speakers rightly develop their own content; but many will often undermine good ideas by insisting on putting too much on a page, as if quantity equates to depth. There will and never should be a mechanism for stopping people putting what they want on a slide. But less here is more, much more; progress will come from training, fashion and example — the better TED presentations should be on every managers viewing list.

As for the speaker spoiling it all at the last moment, that is their privilege. I firmly believe that — all things being equal — a speaker who is happy with their slides will perform more confidently than one who feels uncomfortable with them.
In the end it is always the speaker who matters most.

Because if they feel good, look good and enjoy what they do the audience generally will too.

See Also: That Presentation Sensation

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