The Humanity of Presentations: Cave Paintings to PowerPoint and Back Again

We’ve been presenting to each other before the word “present” ever made it into our vernacular. And we’ve forced ourselves to adjust and adapt to whatever technology was available at the time.

Cave paintings were likely the earliest form of presentation. Moses’ Ten Commandments on two stone tablets were a form of presentation. Today, they might very well be two slides with five bullet points each. Then we evolved to paintings on wood and canvas, to still life photography and four-color printing, and then video.

In the latter half of the 20th century, businesses and universities relied on photographic slides shown on a Kodak Carousel. Slides were made of glass or film and were photographed and developed. After that, they were painstakingly placed in a specific order that could not be altered. Given the amount of work and skill required to create the slides, a presentation was a formal business event that usually took weeks to prepare. The lights were off so you could see the slides, and you’d hear the voice of the presenter, and the click of the carousel. Click-click, next slide please. Click-click. Next slide.

That gave way to the overhead projector with transparencies. Transparencies were faster and easier to create. You could write on them with a grease pen or even run them through a copy machine. The lead time required was much less than a slideshow, even though the quality was not as good. But again, the lights needed to be off so the audience could see the screen. The experience was a little mysterious and somewhat removed. The speaker was a voice in the dark. You couldn’t see his face, and he couldn’t see yours. And when the presentation ended, lights were turned back on. It was jarring as your eyes adjusted, like waking up from a cozy sleep because someone tore open the curtains.

Enter PowerPoint. Its first iteration was really a software form of the carousel – a slideshow. PowerPoint was, and still is, fast and easy, with lots of cool effects, animations, fonts, colors and charts. Where slideshows were once reserved for the most important presentations, PowerPoint could be used in all meetings because it was so easy and inexpensive that anyone could make a presentation. (Though, we admit, some are much better at it than others.) PowerPoint made slideshows mainstream. To this day, it remains such a powerful business tool that it has not only changed the way we present in meetings and classrooms, it has also changed the way we write, speak and communicate in general. Bullet points and outlines replaced long-form prose. Relying on slides, though misguided and certainly not recommended, became a crutch for spontaneous discussion and debate. While it made it easier to speak in front of a room, the rigid nature of a linear slide show replaced spontaneous discussion.

Yet spontaneous discussion, where we share our ideas with each other, is the best way to learn. While PowerPoint was taking off in the early ’90s, CD-ROM encyclopedias were also gaining popularity. CD-ROMs offered libraries of multimedia – pictures, video, text and other information – on a disc. They were a form of interactive, multimedia books. One of the first interactive books created for MGM was “James Bond – The Ultimate Interactive Dossier.” It was an encyclopedic reference of all things James Bond. The explosive action shots, the different James Bond actors, the beautiful Bond girls, the evil villains, the stunning locations. Type in Pussy Galore and you’d be transported back to 1964 (before #MeToo) to read a synopsis and watch a video of Honor Blackman flying over Fort Knox in Goldfinger. It contained pictures, videos, story synopses and even a trivia game. You could play the CD on your computer and browse the library or do a keyword search to find your favorite villain. It was an interactive media library where all of the content was formatted to present – all the content was a slide. One interesting development from this was that James Bond aficionados would use the Dossier as a reference, as proof, as they were debating and discussing various James Bond storylines and characters. And although CD-ROMs soon became antiquated, this was an early example of the presentation following the conversation. These were great advances in presentation technology, but we were still tethered to a machine. We were a captive audience.