The Conception and Birth of the Oh-So-Boring Business Presentation



While cleaning out a closet the other day, I found myself staring at my 15-year-old slide projector, trying to come up with one good reason to keep it.


Because, today, the Slide Projector is one of the target subjects of our creative workshops, where we discuss many of the reasons why the vast majority of business presentations are boring and ineffective.


So what is it with the Projector?


Simply put, if you want to engage an audience, you need to tell a good story. And that can be done across the spectrum of presentations, from the most technical to the most emotional. You just need to know what you’re doing.


For hundreds of years, until the 20th century, sales stories were simply told, without the help of visuals. And those stories were usually well told because closing a sale was purely dependent on the talk, the speech. The salesperson had only a voice to entertain and engage the audience. There was nowhere to hide.  You had to be on your game.  Technology hadn’t yet made salesmen lazy or inarticulate.


The Slide Projector

Before the Slide Projector as we know it, there was a machine called a Magic Lantern.  For decades this device was used to project images, one at a time, on a flat surface.


Then, in the 20th century, the slide projector arrived on the scene. It was used for face-to-face presentations, at the beginning in the home, where family gatherings could watch photographs projected on a wall (commonly dotted by the hooks of the hangings removed for the display). Then, in the 1950s, the carousel projector was introduced.  People could now simply click and move from one pre-loaded image to the next.


During these early days, though, for both domestic and limited corporate use it was still easier to tell stories to engage the listener. But it didn’t take long for people to realize that reinforcing and complementing the vocal with a visual could be a more efficient, powerful storytelling method and persuader.


And the term, Slide, was born. Note that the early slides contained pictures, not words. Their purpose was to entertain, not teach.


A Fatal Step?

Almost at the same time as people were discovering the value of image-backed storytelling, somebody else had a brilliant idea, from which came the Overhead Projector. This was a huge evolution. The Overhead Projector found wide use in education, and then in business.


And that was the beginning of the struggle to create provocative presentations and not run fast from boring, mind-bending stuff, as presenters found that they could for the first time add text to slides in a fairly easy way.


And so they did. Everywhere you looked, presenters were using the slides as teleprompters. People began using slides as crutches, so scripts could not be forgotten.


And so the slide ended up serving the presenter more than the audience.  Descriptive, image-laden language was killed off. Sales stories stopped being spontaneous. And audiences started to be bored.


Today, an Archaic Future

These days, PowerPoint (or Keynote, or any similar software) has brought a world of possibilities to what can be included in slides. But the same bad habits of the days of the Overhead Projector mostly continue to be the norm. Audiences are still bored. And tremendous opportunities are being lost every day. Great products, ideas and projects fail, or at least struggle, at those very moments when the right presentations could put them over the top.



So the tools may have changed, but the rules of the game haven’t: if you want to sell, you still need a good story. A software program can help you tell that story, but if it’s not used well, it can also ruin the effect.


In fact, it’s shocking to see how the “evolution” of truly incredible technology has ended up impeding the achievement of the business goals we could reach if only we used it well.


Back to Reality

So, thinking all this, I realized I just couldn’t find a reason to keep my Slide Projector. But reflecting on the “evolution” that came after – the same one that made the archetype obsolete – brings to mind many practices that can be learned and implemented. These are just a few:


  • Use visuals to enhance your story, not to tell the story on a stand-alone basis. Images should reinforce the messages; they should not be the messages.


  • If you use visuals to help you present, include only anchors – hints – in the slides. Don’t use the slide show as a teleprompter.  Do you really need a crutch to tell your own story?


  • If you want to use visuals to help inform your audience, avoid text and instead use visual language that will complement your message (rather than duplicate it).


  • Good face-to-face slides aren’t self-explanatory. They need an equally good presenter. Really, are you just up there at the front of the room for a Q&A?


From the time of the Magic Lantern to the first Slide Projector to the Carousel to the Overhead Projector to today’s PowerPoint, the meaning of the term Slide has changed dramatically, in tandem with the leaps in technology.  But the application has stayed the same far too much of the time.


So if you want to use Slides to be effective, use the modern software to deliver beautiful, memorable, provocative images. And use that software in the old-fashioned way, to help tell your story to its best advantage.  Use your images to leverage the story you’re telling and to keep your audience engaged.


You may find that people actually start looking forward to your presentations.