It is hard to imagine a tool more powerful than stories. Everything we have achieved, big or small, can be traced back to a story.
While the formats for storytelling have evolved over the years, presentations, or rather slides, are the go-to format for storytelling, especially at work today. For decades before Powerpoint, people made physical visuals on transparencies that they projected. In 1980s, an interesting thing happened – Powerpoint was designed with the sole intention of creating these old formats. But as computers went mainstream, it ended up replacing them. It was a powerful tool that got widespread adoption for something it wasn’t designed for.
Our troubled relationship with slides
Powerpoint and slides haven’t aged well and the reason lies not in what you can do with it, but rather in everything you need to in order to tell a simple story with slides.
Over the last forty years, PowerPoint and slides have continued to dominate as the format to share stories. Slides moved to the cloud and became collaborative with GSlides. But the reality is that most of us struggle with this format. A majority of outputs produced on slides fail to do their core job – tell a story well. And contrary to what you might believe, this is not because YOU are bad at slides. Powerpoint and slides haven’t aged well and the reason lies not in what you can do with it, but rather in everything you need to in order to tell a simple story with slides.
How did we end up here? Why are we so unhappy with the most common medium of storytelling at work?
There are two main reasons…
Tedious creation, design freedom, and burden of ‘raw material’ choices
A vast majority of slide design tools work in the same way as visual design tools – a blank canvas where users create by formatting shapes and text. Over time more and more granular control on formatting and customization was added to give users more freedom. But this overlooks one key issue – most of us do not want to be ‘visual designers’. The added freedom comes with the design burden. In order to go from poor, to mediocre to good, the effort increases exponentially.
Creation on slides today is comparable to asking people to cook with molecules instead of ingredients, in a world where people just want instant noodles. Users are forced to spend time on unnecessary ‘raw material’ choices – like typography, spacing, radius of the rectangle, colours, harmony, and countless other visual design choices.
Great storytelling involves a combination of information, visual, motion, and interaction design. And most of us simply do not have the time, skill, or patience to deliver this in a format that needs so many steps to get to the end state.
Changing consumption behavior, low attention spans, and social media
The way people consume, absorb and retain information has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. While there are several reasons for this, nothing comes close to the kind of profound and widespread impact social media has had in the last decade on how people digest information everyday. A large majority of people today consume their news on social media. The bite sized formats popularised by Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and now Tiktok have contributed to a significant reduction in attention spans, especially across the younger population.
As Gen Z and millennials enter the workforce, we are seeing the collision of an outdated storytelling format and new consumption behaviours. There is an expectation for more engaging, shorter, bite sized formats that are tailored to how users consume information today.
The bad news: The problem is deeper than just software
Rather than providing information, PowerPoint allows speakers to pretend that they are giving a real talk, and audiences to pretend that they are listening
The unfortunate reality is that we face a bigger problem than just archaic tools – we live in an era of bad presentations. The way slides and slide design tools have been designed has created a breeding ground for bad information design. Most presentations today are plagued with poor and incoherent narratives, lack of statistical and graphical integrity, and significant chartjunk. In fact, one can go so far as to say, we often hide behind empty slides that do not really say anything meaningful. Edward Tufte, one of the greatest information designers of our time, says “Rather than providing information, PowerPoint allows speakers to pretend that they are giving a real talk, and audiences to pretend that they are listening”.
“Technology is not neutral – it creates affordances to make some things easier and some things harder” says Don Norman. Unfortunately, we have ended up with tools that not only make it hard to make great presentations but make it extremely easy to make bad ones.
Why haven’t we solved this yet?
While we have known and complained about these problems for ages, there is a huge grave of Powerpoint killers that have come and gone. There are a few reasons for this.
The first big reason is the misconception that the missing piece is more freedom, choice, and features. Over the years, presentation tools, similar to archaic design tools have become feature factories. Most of us are paralyzed by the design choices that come from this freedom.
Creativity loves and thrives in constraint, not in the abundance of choice
The other common misconception that further aggravates this issue is that presentations are a visual design endeavor. Excellent presentations certainly package information gracefully but ‘pretty’ presentations are not the same as excellent presentations. Pugin’s saying about architecture, “It is okay to decorate a construction, but never construct a decoration”, rings true in the face of our tendency to posterize presentations. This has led to the rise of presentations that are simply hollow visual wrappers without substance underneath. This is also why templates only produce the same hollow presentations faster.
Ultimately, great storytelling and creating visual aid of the highest graphical quality is a skill – one that most of us do not have time, patience, or interest to acquire. Somehow, we have, over and over again built tools that attack this vulnerability – instead of protecting us against it. Therefore, while we may have gotten faster, the problem of us constantly producing bad presentations remains unsolved.
These problems plagued information design far before Powerpoint. With computers, we made the mistake of creating programs that do not solve this but rather make it faster to output poor presentations. And we are at a similar juncture with AI.
The good news: Great stories exist
Every once in a while you will come across a presentation, a speaker, or even a visual representation – so profound, thoughtful, and accurate that it is able to convey information in a way that just clicks! Whether it is profound multi-variate information visualizations like the Minard graph or extremely compelling pitches delivered in a convincing way like Steve Jobs’ announcement of the iPhone – there are many examples of what great looks like.
It is, therefore, quite clear that the problem is not that great stories cannot be made on existing tools but rather that the tools do not aid the creation of great stories for everyone. While possible, it just takes an impractical amount of effort, skill, and time to create great stories with existing tools. And therefore, the most important part of the solution lies not in giving more pixel-level freedom to users but rather applying thoughtful constraints that inhibit bad information design altogether.
Great stories are a powerful combination of a compelling narrative, backed with precise information graphics that are packaged gracefully for the viewer to absorb. These great stories have:
- Coherent narratives with the choice to dive deeper at will
- Graphical representations of high statistical integrity that convey information effectively
- Use of motion and interaction design to aid the absorption and retention of information
A modern format of storytelling
A modern format of storytelling not only caters to a user base with radically new behaviors and expectations but also solves the problems of information design that come with it. This is the new medium we are interested in building. We are not interested in building another tool that helps you make the same slides faster. It is to get rid of the obstacles that stand between you and a great story. We want to ensure that you are able to deliver extremely high-quality presentations and find it impossible to make bad ones.
This is harder than just reimagining Powerpoint and will take time and will involve starting slow, accepting the things that slides do well while steadily changing the things that do not work. We are working hard to build a tool where creating mind-blowing stories is magically easy and fast while delivering bad information design is close to impossible. Ultimately this involves what any great product must do – behavior change. We are very excited to embark on this journey with you.