Sunday, February 04, 2007

Mastery in presentation

Recently I've been impressed by how masterful presenters, like Steve Jobs and Al Gore, use presentation software (I think in both cases Apple's Keynote, but not sure). For the iPhone launch, Jobs starts off by saying that Apple is going to introduce three new products -- a mobile phone, a widescreen iPod, and an Internet communicator. He has slides on each one then weaves them together to show that it is really one product -- the iPhone. Throughout his talk and demoes he uses the slides as both content and backdrop, and the whole production appears seamless, entertaining, and convincing. Similarly in the film An Inconvenient Truth, Gore gives an amped-up version of his famous slideshow. I found it riveting and utterly persuasive (might have to go along with my wife's wish to trade in our Sienna).

In neither Jobs' nor Gore's cases is the presentation or the software used to produce it itself their focus, though clearly they have spent huge amounts of time, effort, and artistry to produce and fine-tune their presentations, and take advantage of many power-user features (not to mention professionally produced graphics). There are shots throughout An Inconvenient Truth of Gore mousing around on his Powerbook, tweaking the slideshow. They are primarily interested in the message they are trying to get across, its persuasiveness and evocativeness, rather than the medium itself. They are after a "vertical" of getting across particular meaning rather than the "horizontal" of making the software itself, and what it can do, their focus.

With Compendium, however, the software itself, the methods to produce its "presentations", and the horizontal potential of these, have been my focus. Sometimes that feels like kind of a tech-weenie mission. Rather than focusing directly on a societal problem as Gore does, I have spent years of effort on a tool and approach that may or may not ever be used to make a social difference. I spend loads of time working with the rest of the small Compendium team on technical details. It is true that for me, as well as for many of the rest of us, there is a social impetus behind this work, but again it is horizontal in nature, having to do with enhancing our ability to communicate with and understand each other. Sometimes -- usually -- this feels necessary and worthwhile, but after watching Gore's film it can feel excessively indirect.