PowerPoint: Rhetoric Machine

The Journal of the Medinge Group, vol. 1, no. 1, August 2007.

Pierre d’Huy
Experts Consulting

Translated from the French by Stanley Moss
CEO, The Medinge Group
Founder, Diganzi

Microsoft Word version | Version original

‘With the device of rhetoric, what is offered at the beginning—and appears at the risk of collective aphasia—are the raw materials of reasoning, of facts, of subject; yet what is found at the end is a complete language, structured and armed for persuasion.’—Roland Barthes: ‘L’ancienne rhétorique’, Communications, no. 16, 1970, B.0.4, p. 197.

PowerPoint is a Microsoft program which allows the user to create electronic presentations in the form of a succession of slides, often linked by simple animated visual effects. These slides can contain pictures, text, films, sounds, moving figures and different computer graphics or hyperlinks. This presentation application is used in great numbers internationally by businesspeople and students alike. Microsoft estimates 30 million PowerPoint presentations are made every day all over the world.

The success of PowerPoint is so considerable that its emergence cannot be explained away solely by the recent fall in the price of computers and projectors. In itself, PowerPoint seems to constitute an emerging medium of societal communication. Such unprecedented success inevitably attracts the eye of the médiologue. Rather than dismiss PowerPoint as a minor event, let us take time to re-examine it.

Over a long period, the uninterrupted use of PowerPoint as reference support has evolved a particular form of speech. It models a distinct manner of thinking, demonstrating, and persuading. Since its creation twenty years ago, PowerPoint has survived inconspicuously, a hegemonic example of constitution of norm.

One is tempted to wager that soon the young generation will no longer be able to express themselves orally without help of a tool of presentation. In this respect, note that PowerPoint is reported to be more and more widely used for wedding speeches. Even more troubling, there may come a day when people cannot listen unless a speaker expresses himself in conjunction with PowerPoint. Faced with the “little music” that a rhetorical machine produces, classical speech could become inaudible.

PowerPoint abets the impression of clear presentations. Steve Jobs made such a demonstration when he launched iPhone at Mac World 2007 in San Francisco.1 Like a pianist who perfectly controls the independence of left and right hands, he linked a simultaneous projection of text and pictures to illustrate his purpose. Thanks to PowerPoint, the quality of audience reception was maximized, and understanding was made easier.

PowerPoint also allows the manipulation of audiences by the fundamental use of argumentation founded more on effect than on proof. On February 7, 2003 the American General Colin Powell introduced a PowerPoint document to the Security Council of the United Nations, the intention of which was to demonstrate confirmation of the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. (See attached reproductions of certain slides used).

The perverse effects raised by PowerPoint’s detractors revolve around five major problem points:

  • problem of the user: while PowerPoint aids good presenters, it always renders the mediocre ones unbearable. PowerPoint is a complex professional multimedia instrument placed at the disposition of an insufficiently competent general public;
  • problem of writing: rare are the PowerPoint presentations which play the game of brevity and are an instrument of the supportive kind. The better part of PowerPoint presentations are talkative and laboured;
  • problem of effectiveness with principles of demonstration: the logical fluidity of classical speech is at odds with thoughts broken apart by the succession of PowerPoint slides. PowerPoint often stutters;
  • problem of manipulation: the principle of juxtaposition exempts the presenter from the logical necessity of linking reason to effect in written text. To juxtapose is not to show. Often the syllogisms of demonstration found in PowerPoint presentations are weak or contestable. But they are difficult to refute because the presenter can overlook the first parts as he pleases. The mind of the audience is under the control of imposed rhythms and enforced reading in fragments;
  • problem of use: explanation is the job of the presenter. PowerPoint is often sent by electronic mail without explanation, as a reference document. This is a bit like giving a person the apparatus of a conjurer and expecting them to competently perform magic tricks on stage. By removing the obligation to support a presentation, PowerPoint corrupts the information which it is intended to carry.

For all these reasons, doubt is growing over the real pedagogic effectiveness of PowerPoint. Associations of parents of American pupils are seeking a ban on its use in secondary schools and universities in the USA.

To look in greater detail at the opinion of its detractors, it helps to refer to the very effective work of Edward Tufte2 and to articles such as ‘PowerPoint Makes You Dumb’3 in The New York Times, or ‘Point of View on PowerPoint’4 in The Guardian.

Iraq: Failing to Disarm

Iraq: Failure to Disarm

PowerPoint: simultaneous speech
PowerPoint comes from the world of Apple Macintosh, that is to say from the world in the ’80s which first allowed the general public access to computer science. The world of Apple is that of the visual, of “creatives” and of graphic designers, the world of those who free themselves from the dictatorship of the parallel horizontal line, the unmoving characters of print. This is the universe of the mouse, of the cursor which drifts freely across the screen and finishes in the blinking vertical line, of letters arrayed on the keyboard. It is the Macintosh brush and mobile characters in opposition to the static Underwood typewriter. The mind freed from drawings can visualize on the electronic screen. One recollects the freedom of the Calligrams of Guillaume Apollinaire and the technical difficulty of their reproduction.

PowerPoint multiplies the battery of effects at the disposition of the speaker, and in doing so compounds its means. PowerPoint “effects” are the new rhetorical devices of our time. The pictures, schemata, graphs, pop videos, computer graphics, animations, or illustrations are like digital cousins to metaphor or metonymy. This somehow justifies calling the toolbox of its capabilities an ‘auto-content wizard.’ Richard Mayer, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, studied its human features in detail, looking at the system of information, segmented by how it sees itself and those instructions which it agrees to follow. He determined that simultaneous contact to both channels allows the public not only to better understand, but to better persuade. It is the ‘dual channel’5 effect, a key element of the mechanics of firm belief in PowerPoint.

Let us pause for an instant and reflect on an interesting mixture of typologies, since in PowerPoint, the visible splits the legible into two distinct parts. PowerPoint creates a new behaviour here: collective reading onscreen. To reference the three ages of Régis Debray,6 someplace new has been created which exists between the graphosphère and the vidéosphère, between appearance and publication, since the text is read and seen, simultaneously and collectively. This perhaps explains its success. PowerPoint plays on thresholds. PowerPoint is a machine to conciliate what is written and what must be seen. Picture redeems itself as behaviour through the counterpoise with written text. As the text gets lighter, it is elevated by pictures.

PowerPoint automatically formats and gives life to slides consisting of text, pictures, figures, and effects, all at the same time. Here one rediscovers the simultaneity of the Surrealists, which one can find in La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France. In 1913 Blaise Cendrars captioned this poem, illustrated by drawings of Sonia Delaunay, as the ‘first simultaneous book’.

PowerPoint software understands that to communicate definitively and persuade, it is necessary to multiply statements in parallel, all at the same time: see a picture–read a text–hear the voice of a presenter. The rhetorical figures of PowerPoint are built in the gaps between the three dimensions: picture, text and voice. The three statements synchronize, are repeated, or—to the contrary—move, move apart, collide.

PowerPoint: presentation or performance?
First regarded as a simple tool of support, the PowerPoint program is on the way to becoming a universal language used by both professional and academic worlds. These are the places where speech is carefully staged. These worlds seek to prescribe order which successfully coordinates image, movement and writing. Every multinational today has meeting rooms endowed with big screens designed to receive presentations. Any information arrayed there is invariably transformed into presentation. Each presentation repeats, constructs, takes up time, times its interventions. If the medium is the message, then with PowerPoint everything turns into show business. To such an extent, speech becomes more important than the transmitter. To such an extent, the searchlight and the newscaster end up merging.

More and more press websites offer their visitors slide shows in PowerPoint. The Newspaper of the Net, in partnership with the AFP, offers this type of slide show, for instance, designed to explain the economy in 675 frames. Business Week adds slide shows to many of its online news stories. These presentations automatically activate, and display as a programmed succession of slides. They constitute a kind of intermediary between written articles and that of short video subjects. They show wonderfully that a good PowerPoint can very effectively operate without a newscaster or presenter.

This explains why the PowerPoint presenter is compelled to deliver theatrics. It is due to the overlap of information and not the synergy, of competition with the PowerPoint presentation. Facing a huge screen, the presenter is encouraged to make more of it than really exists. A simple purpose then becomes a presentation; a hypothesis suddenly becomes a claim. The presenter is compelled, often in his defending arguments, to prove, to demonstrate, even when he has nothing of substance to offer. Bereft of real reasons, presenters get carried away. They display only glittering facets of their case. It is the most serious reproach which can be made about PowerPoint: PowerPoint does not like stories, PowerPoint kills narration. Narrative migrates in an opportunistic scenario, sequencing inappropriately, defended by the language of firm belief.

PowerPoint: ownership of speech
PowerPoint’s response to Barthes’ idea of rhetoric is to offer a description of the machine, defined by Microsoft, as ‘The most prevalent form of persuasion technology’.8 This means that the argument (‘fidem facere’ of Probatio) tells and moves at the same time (‘animos impellere’) and thus persuades by what is seen. PowerPoint directs our attention to the art of persuasion. This art has been left fallow since the time of Napoleon III, the epoch of the last important treatises on rhetoric, when it constituted the backbone of the education of all ruling classes since Athens in the fifth century.

Rhetoric is a contemporary of Democracy, and a language conceived to entice the jury during courtroom trials. It is not by chance that PowerPoint is of American origin, the product of a nation enamoured with litigious business, who first aligned PowerPoint to the principles of computerization. This ‘first rhetoric’ is disparaged by Plato in Gorgias.9 Socrates compares the ‘make believe’ of rhetoric, contrasting it to the ‘informing’ of the philosopher. Calliclès answers that ‘rhetoric does not need to know what the things are about which it speaks; it has simply discovered a technique which serves us for persuading.’ PowerPoint has no knowledge as its objective, only firm belief. It lies far from the Socratic maieutics, the search for truth by dialogue and confutation. Rhetoric contents itself with its status as a machine of persuasion. Any likely simplistic assemblage is acceptable, provided that the target is reached.

Barthes said to us in 1964, in his seminary at the École des Hautes Études, that rhetoric is a social practice, as well as a privileged technology, since it is necessary to pay to acquire it. It allows the ruling classes to gain definite ownership of the word. With PowerPoint, one also definitively gains the ownership of speech. This occurs thanks to a format of content, which is taught and which one learns. It is a pure technology of persuasion, in search of firm advocacy from its audience. This is an art ‘of persuasion, a group of rules, recipes, wherein the implementation intends to persuade the listeners of speech, even if that of which they must be persuaded is wrong.’10

PowerPoint is, finally, a tool of education. Occasionally during some university orals, a student might wonder if the oral was more about a financial year, a lesson driven by PowerPoint, first of all. The question is no longer to prepare students for the job, but to create good rhetoreticians. On this point, Gorgias explains to Socrates, ‘And whoever is the man presenting an argument in favour, compared in debate, the speaker will persuade that his argument be chosen, rather than that of his opponent; because there is no subject on which the speaker would speak in a more convincing manner in front of a crowd, so great and appealing is the potency of our art’.

The contemporary translation of this statement could be that it is better to have a good PowerPoint introduced by an incompetent, than be given a speech by an expert. So, to persuade about the urgency to struggle against global warming, it is better to have the PowerPoint used by Al Gore in the documentary An Inconvenient Truth11 by David Guggenheim than to provide speech of the most erudite climatologists.

PowerPoint: show, to provoke thought
It would be inadequate or inexact to dismiss the success of PowerPoint solely for its triumphant packaging of content. PowerPoint often supports a sophisticated rhetorician, a technician.
The médiologue can also discern the numerical resumption of a more Aristotelian rhetoric, a rhetoric less subjugated by its own power, a rhetoric more in the service of truth and beauty. There is nothing worse than when PowerPoint renders rhetoric heavy, when it is badly used. Of course, one can see it coming, an annoying aspect of the control of the progression of thought. The presenter is there to persuade, but after all, the firm commitment apparent in the flux of a well-written text is worth the artful juxtaposition of a PowerPoint presentation, if the reason is fair.

We have seen a Minister of Finance12 skilfully use a PowerPoint presentation as a kind of supplement. His bright and open speech was simplistically interspersed by dynamic zooms into a slide or swift transitions from one to the other, to the delight of his audience. By recalling the conditions of a dialectical exchange, reinstituting dialogue with his public like a midwife might, he revitalized the foreseeable fixity of his PowerPoint. Pictures came in support of words and provided more evidence that yes, in order to persuade the young generations one needed to divert eyes taught to dart from screen to screen. Such technique was needed, at the very least. It proves that a good visual speech, that is to say a speech which constructs a “point of view”, is a universal speech bearing firm belief, one which transcends national languages. A picture does not require translation.

PowerPoint is a rhetoric machine adapted for the Doubting Thomases of the world, who believe only what they see. PowerPoint, sits at the peak of the vidéosphère, the worship of appearance. During the first film screened by the Lumière Brothers, the seated audience dropped down under their chairs when they saw an engine entering the railway station of La Ciotat. What sequence of slides could be placed in a row today to produce the same result?

A century later the young generations have an advanced disposition to the screen. Consequently they understand that the picture of the engine signals no danger. Their enormous experience with an ongoing succession of screens has conferred upon them three new talents.

  1. They learned to read pictures, and not only texts.
  2. They know how to read several speeches at the same time, from multiple sources, without being unsettled.
  3. They demand a connection which enables interaction (i.e. Wikipédia12, continual interaction with a “living” encyclopædia).

PowerPoint answers the first two points wonderfully by arranging the reading of picture and writings hierarchically. For the third, let us note that in its 2007 version, PowerPoint’s new connectivity allows collaborative tasks and hyperlinks with the Internet universe. In doing so, Microsoft upgrades PowerPoint in the hypersphère13 of Web 2·0, reinforcing the potential to perpetuate its already considerable success.

PowerPoint is a sign of the times, ardently American, giving everyone the possibility of creating amateur cinema, and of conceiving small illustrated visions of the world. Even when it occurs in a clumsy manner, even if its assertiveness of firm belief is applied for the poorest of reasons, it has its worth. PowerPoint understands that it is necessary to demonstrate in our contemporary world, and thus to compel people to think.

1. Steve Jobs, MacWorld 2007, San Francisco, Calif. Video of available speech at http://events.apple.com.edgesuite.net/j47d5200/event.
2. E. Tufte: The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, 2nd ed. Cheshire, Conn.: Graphics Press LLC, 2006.
3. E. Tufte: ‘PowerPoint makes you dumb’, The New York Times, December 17, 2003.
4. ‘Point of view on PowerPoint’, The Guardian.
5. R. E. Mayer: Multimedia Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2001.
6. ‘The most prevalent form of persuasion technology.’ Readers will appreciate the ambiguity of the English word prevalent, which means at the same time spread and predominating.
7. R. Debray: Cours de Médiologie générale. Paris: Gallimard 1991, reissued folio, Paris: Gallimard 2001.
8. Plato: Gorgias.
9. An Inconvenient Truth, film by David Guggenheim, 2006.
10. R. Barthes: ‘L’ancienne rhétorique’, Communications, n° 16, 1970, p. 197.
11. This refers to a presentation by Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
12. Wikipedia is an online-based collaborative encyclopædia, www.wikipedia.com.
13. L. Merzeau: Cahiers de médiologie, no. 6, 1998. ‘This will not kill that.’

Pierre d’Huy is an international consultant specializing in the Management of Innovation, and a professor affiliated with the Management Institute of Paris. He teaches at CELSA Sorbonne Paris IV. His most recent book is Collective Innovation from Éditions Liaisons Sociales. There is more to come in February 2007 in another book, Collective Imagination.
Stanley Moss translated this essay from Pierre d’Huy’s original text in French. Mr Moss is CEO of the Medinge Group, a Stockholm-based think-tank on international branding. He is also founder of Diganzi, an international brand consultancy, www.diganzi.com.

Stanley MossPowerPoint: Rhetoric Machine

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