Making My PowerPoint

We all have our personal nightmares.

For some, they might include rendition to some secret interrogation centre, for others being stripped by muggers of their iPhone, Watch, iPad, and MacBook Air in some dingy alley, perhaps. For a surprising number, high on their list of horrors is standing in front of peers and speaking to the accompaniment of ‘slides’ – the dreaded presentation.

After I returned from an Antarctic expedition, long before Mac developers Forethought sold the original PowerPoint to Microsoft, when 35 mm transparencies were the speaker’s aid, I did the lecture circuit. Not for me lucrative after-dinner spots in Claridge’s, but I trudged between village halls along the South Coast, armed with my Kodak Carousel projector magazine charged with pics of penguins and icebergs.

The Carousel projector was then state of the art, every professional raconteur learning to deal with its foibles. I saw others misplace the rotary metal floor of their Carousels so that sixty slides suddenly spewed all over the floor.

The worst that happened to me was in a little hall near Chichester, when the projector bulb blew. Kodak projectors contained a spare bulb, to which we switched, only for that to blow as well. I was reduced to handing my slides around the audience, while the organiser searched for a third bulb.

Everything changed when we became able to hook computers up to video projectors, and subject our audiences to the hail of flying bullet points, low-res murky photos, and grotesquely gawdy graphs.

Some colleagues got into the habit of composing their presentations at the very last minute, trusting all to PowerPoint’s malicious sense of humour. For a few years I stuck to DVD video slide shows assembled assiduously in DVD Studio Pro and iDVD, insisting that a DVD player would not crash. But as more lecture venues forced me to play DVDs in their Windows computers, I finally accepted defeat.

I have since witnessed dozens of careers crash and burn in the clutches of PowerPoint.

During one rehearsal, my boss moaned that he could not make out any of my photos, which were being displayed as colour ‘snow’. He generously blamed his colour-blindness, I blamed a bug in PowerPoint’s JPEG decoding.

The most tragic and public death by PowerPoint which I witnessed occurred at a prestigious international conference in Helsinki. There a promising young Chinese physician, freshly released from the harsh bonds of Maoism, discovered that her slides had been formatted for a higher resolution display, thus were incomprehensible on the lower-res system provided.

She was reduced to giving her half-hour talk, in a mysterious shrill Sino-English dialect that proved as opaque as her slides, whilst pointing at successive thumbnails in PowerPoint’s overview. Less charitable members of the audience tucked into flasks of coffee, or rose and strode out.

When Microsoft Office for Mac 2011 was released, I was in the throes of producing a very demanding presentation that lasted over two and a half hours. Despite the temptation to try PowerPoint 2011, vivid memories of those casualties made me stick to my guns. I prepared the slides in Keynote, which I still find the perfect combination of power and accessibility. Once happy with them, I exported and imported to PowerPoint 2008 for a thorough brush-up, then down to the final delivery platform of PowerPoint 2003 under Windows XP.

On the day, all went smoothly, each bullet reaching its target without reformatting flaws.

But as I now start exploring the pre-release version of PowerPoint 2015, I cannot help thinking how presentation software should make life easier, not more stressful.

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 27 issue 02, 2011.