After being a public accountant and well-trained stage actor, I began to develop a growing interest in the microcomputer industry in the late 1970s. Observing the early technologies of Apple, Microsoft and IBM, I watched operating systems and software programs evolve. The swiftly changing technology actually shifted work habits, opening up “windows” of opportunity for me – in more ways than one.
Desktop computers placed more information immediately at our fingertips, creating greater senses of urgency as organizations “differentiated” by pushing the most relevant content. The traditional work schedules of “9-to-5” were quickly waning as the collecting and managing of retrievable bits of information unfortunately made the normal workday much longer. These in-house, overtime efforts were often relegated to administrators and general staff who were spending late nights and weekends producing deliverable media for executives who were touting their solutions in face-to-face meetings.
Smaller companies, with dedicated teams, offered services to assist in time-management related tasks, such as building presentations, and outsourcing options were a welcomed sigh of relief to overworked staff.
The Dawn of a New Era
In 1985, the landscape of visual presentations was mostly hardcopy (overheads and slides). In fact, the 35mm slide was considered the “state-of-the-art” media format and each one was either manually typeset by local photo/imaging developers or produced in-house by larger companies using high-priced slide-making equipment (such as Genigraphics), with separate departments dedicated to managing the services. The appearance of affordable and portable data projectors was several years away. The Macintosh was just entering the market, and the Video Graphics Array (VGA) ushered a manageable 640 x 480 display when referencing screen resolution on computer monitors.
When I started my company MediaNet, in 1985, I had already been investigating an alternative way to design and deliver visual content. I focused on a novel approach described as “electronic images”, and I marketed a very unique electronic visual playback device called VideoShow from General Parametrics. Similar to a modern notebook computer, this digital media (floppy disk) format offered the ability to immediately edit, change, duplicate and display images without reproducing the output as with slides or overheads.
The VideoShow device was unique and impressive. The graphics emulated the arcade games of the day, similar to today’s PlayStation, or even akin to the now popular retina display of the iPad. The stunning visual images could be immediately displayed on a computer monitor or large screen projection system, and the images could be advanced electronically with a remote control (sound familiar?). This meant that you could have “slide-like” images stored on rewritable media, updated immediately, with a lower overall cost of production (compared to duplicating slides and transparencies).
In the absence of an image projector, with a separate camera-based device (PhotoMetric), 35mm slides could still be produced; and using the Calcomp line of color printers, full-color overhead transparencies could be made, as well. The entire VideoShow collection was like having a graphics department at your desk. I even trademarked a unique combination of hardware and software components calling my “solution” the “VideoShow Presentation System” and identifying the integrated software programs as “Presenter” software.
As a side note, little did I know that my registering the name “Presenter” software in late 1985 would change the course of another company located on the opposite coast. At around the same time, Microsoft was interested in offering a program for the Macintosh in 1987, called Microsoft “Presenter”. They discovered that someone had already registered the name — so they changed their software title into something called “PowerPoint”. I did not know about any of this until I read Robert Gaskins’ interview which describes how PowerPoint got its name.
In larger companies, the ever-growing backlog of people waiting for their in-house Genigraphics team to process slide requests led to more sales of our “presentation system” solution. Frustrated individual departments began buying the VideoShow as the alternative. But the underlying challenge was that when anyone bought one of these $3,500 VideoShow devices, someone still had to create the content using the provided “Presenter” software, and time-management issues continued. As a result, we had more and more requests to design the presentations because no one wanted to master the software — and for one very good reason — whoever became the in-house expert would be the one working late nights and weekends designing slides for everyone else in the department!
Learning What Really Works
In the midst of all this creative work, my real question in slide design was to figure out what audiences preferred rather than create content based on what we “thought” looked good or what others were doing. Although there were plenty of books on color theory (mostly related to painting), there was very little published research available on the effective design of projected electronic images. This was not surprising since all this technology was being used as it was being developed!
This was a brand new world for so many people — hardware manufacturers, software designers, and creative services companies. The lack of research related to electronic presentations was understandable as academic budgets rarely allowed access to the most modern technology, and few researchers were conducting in-depth studies on the presentation effects of color, room layout, lighting, media formats, etc., especially with large audiences across multiple venues, using electronic displays.
To the technology companies who wanted to know what worked and what didn’t work, MediaNet suddenly became an ideal testing ground for audience analysis because we were already creating hundreds of presentations each year for major companies who were consistently presenting in front of large groups domestically and sometimes globally. We just needed to gather some information whenever events unfolded, and create “study-scenarios” at live events to test reactions.
We tracked audience feedback from over 1,500 presentations over a three-year period, noting audience preferences for colors, room conditions, and elements of visual design, especially with images viewed from a distance. We had people attending events (positioned behind the display screens) and observing audience reactions, interviewing people to gain feedback, constantly making notes and reflecting these preferences in our future visual designs.
Several organizations (most notably 3M) asked us to summarize the data and the findings were reported in trade journals, and industry white papers. Later, our information gathering techniques were included in academic studies from the University of Minnesota, Ohio State and others. Interestingly, much of the current research found in the literature today mirrors many of the findings we uncovered, which also supports the visual design principles we espoused in the early years.
Form Follows Function
Being at the forefront, clients sought our “design” expertise, and the overall look of a presentation was clearly at our disposal. The use of full-color backgrounds certainly eliminated the “blast of white light” generated by traditional overheads. Hollywood had already long-mastered the art of visibility from a distance (dark backgrounds, light foregrounds, even with rolling credits at the end of a movie) and the world of 35mm slides continued that pattern, so why would electronic images be any different? The TV remote resulted in shorter commercials and suddenly savvy audiences were demanding simple visual designs to match much shorter attention spans.
As color images flourished, black & white overhead transparencies were soon viewed as second-rate and were for those who either did not understand the effect of visual content from a distance, or were not financially able to afford color images. Either way, audience preferences for full-color visuals were made abundantly clear. Even software designers began adding clip-art in order to satisfy the needs of a growing audience of visual creatures. The next big step was in the hardware area as technology became more portable and electronic delivery more feasible.
By the early 1990’s the VideoShow was being replaced by notebook computers connected to LCD panels and portable projectors displaying images designed in “Windows-based” graphic programs like Lotus Freelance, Harvard Graphics, and even Microsoft PowerPoint which had been a Mac product since 1987. Once PowerPoint was bundled into the Office Suite, the slide-design service business began fading because so many people were designing their own presentations right at their desks.
Electronic presentations also meant that certain conventional design elements could be eliminated. The company logo, for example, was only incorporated into 35mm slides for a very simple reason — those little rectangular chromes were often misplaced or mixed up at the slide developer’s site. Without a logo or some identification it was easy for an IBM bar chart to end up in a Nabisco slide deck! These things actually happened! Yet, electronic images were intangible and could not be misplaced, so repetitive logos were now just visual distractions that added no value to the existing content and could easily be eliminated, making way for full-screen photos, and more flexibility in design.
With full-color backgrounds and photographic images, the “visual display” became more important. Yellow or white text with a black drop-shadow, set on a dark blue (indigo or navy) background made content more clearly visible from greater distances. But the projectors were struggling to maintain brightness in rooms where lights could not dim, and complete darkness was poor for note taking, so “room layout” options changed how presentations were viewed. The high-gain, glass-beaded screens, originally made for 35mm slides, made full-color electronic images look great, and created more narrow room layouts with even larger screens. The realization was that the uneven distribution of light (no light hitting the screen, focused light on the presenter, and some light above the audience) suddenly created a sense of “theatre”.
The Performance of Print
The good news for MediaNet was that the proliferation of desktop software meant that more people were creating their own visuals, resulting in an abundance of poorly-designed presentations, mostly filled with cluttered information, delivered by anyone who had anything to say to anyone who would listen. Companies were promoting novice presenters who were delivering excessively wordy and busy content. This problematic design issue (still true to this day), suggested that while organizations could not make average people into graphic artists, they still only had average presenters with less than artistic delivery skills.
Suddenly, the interest was not so much in fixing the design, but in perfecting the delivery, which allowed people like me to focus on the nonverbal, body language and other “performance” elements that I had already developed from my early theatre days. These skills would highlight yet another shift in the presentation arena — developing the three-dimensional expression of what was once on paper — people needed to learn presentation skills. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.
In 1992, Daniele Joudene, a senior executive at In Focus Systems (the leading projector manufacturer), took interest in our audience research and in the skills training I was offering. She saw a market opportunity to have someone show people how to become better than average presenters, while using portable electronic products. She suggested I become the keynote speaker for a series of domestic and international seminars (multi-year, 40-city tours) to offer insights in to “the secrets of the portable presenter”. The mystery could be solved with a projector (In Focus), graphics software (Lotus Freelance) and a notebook computer (Toshiba). In later years, Microsoft replaced Lotus on the tour.
These Electrifying Presentations seminars were attended by more than 25,000 people, leading to substantial and measurable returns for the sponsors, and providing MediaNet with more audience feedback to add to the already expansive data we had collected several years earlier, all with the intent to help us continually improve the presentation process. To support the seminars, we incorporated the collected feedback of our research efforts into a very functional book filled with practical advice titled Purpose, Movement, Color.
Within a few years, technology sophistication would allow presenters to add multimedia elements (sound, video, animation), which, as with any new option, has its challenges. Whereas few people were graphic artists when it came to slide design, even fewer were production specialists who knew the nuances of multimedia elements. Most underestimated the time it takes to edit video, sound or animation, and these media segments often looked out of place in a presentation, or some technology glitch would wreak havoc on the event. It took a while before presentations matured, and seasoned presenters now tend to become familiar with technology ahead of time, before attempting new activities in front of audiences.
Currently there are different software programs for designing and displaying content, each with a new twist on an old idea. But, since the middle of the 1990s there has not been a tremendous change in the relative structure of presentations — that is, having a clear message, offering some evidence (usually visual support), and providing an effective delivery style that leads to a call to action.
Where Do We Go From Here?
I tend to categorize the period from the emergence of the personal computer until the appearance of the smartphone as an “age of information”. But now, the fact is that information is truly at our fingertips — on cell phones or other portable devices —and suddenly we can Google our way into solving trivial riddles, rendering arguments useless, and gaining instant gratification for finding what we need to know when we need to know it. Strangely enough, we are still spending late nights and weekends gathering and sharing relevant information, except we have access to the data from anywhere.
With all this valuable and available information ever-present in our lives, I think we are now moving from the “age of information” into what I like to call the “age of explanation”. Power once rested with those who could find relevant data — but now the respect is shown to those who can make sense of it all. It is not difficult to gather statistics, articles, discussions, studies, and other evidence to support the topic, but now we want to know what to do with all this stuff. Those who can sift through the rubble and produce a gem are the ones with expertise and vision.
It’s easy to collect the dots, but far more difficult to connect them!
For those who are connecting the dots, the future of presentations is clearly focusing on the delivery of expertise supported with a limited display of content. The better slides will be designed to be viewed, not read. The images will “tease”, never “please” allowing visual support to provide only enough content to lead an audience directly back to the presenter for the interpretive context. Interaction, where possible, will engage audiences by involving them in the problem, not simply offering a preplanned solution.
Change will occur with interpersonal communication, the appeal to long-term memory using stories, examples and analogies, a knowledgeable presenter who comes equipped with questions for the audience that stimulate thinking, and someone who understands that the non-verbal cues must remain congruent with prepared content.
Assessments that can measure skills will gain prominence as presenters seek immediate feedback from audiences in order to adapt to ever-changing conditions. Savvy speakers will understand audience preferences and find ways to meet individual needs in a variety of venues.
Visually speaking, ahead of us should be the streamlined version of what preceded us!
Tom is also part of the faculty at NYU and with his colleague, Dr. Leila Jahangiri, he has collaborated on extensive research in the area of teaching & presentation effectiveness, publishing articles, interactive assessment tools, and the recent book A Guide to Better Teaching. He is the co-author of five other books and two interactive CDs.