Faris Yakob delves into the history and philosophy of a vital tool for strategists: the presentation.

In Renaissance Italy there was a theatrical form called ‘cantastoria’ (literally story-singer) in which a performer tells (or sings) a story while pointing to a series of images. Variants of it appear all over the world, originating at least as early as 6th century India, when religious stories were performed by itinerant bards who carried banners painted with pictures of gods. 

It is in this tradition that a great deal of modern business is enacted. The form exists all over because it is uniquely powerful, combining aspects of performance, rhetoric, design, and storytelling into a multimedia feast for the mind. Multiple encoding of the same concept in words and images (art and copy) makes things more memorable – that’s how many memory tricks work, appending concrete and unusual images to abstract things like names, for example.

Today we call these presentations and you probably use PowerPoint or Keynote everyday if you work in marketing or advertising. It is the dominant, default document format for much of corporate life, especially for things that require imagining something that doesn’t yet exist and getting budget approval for it. It is also much maligned. This is in part because it provides the creative freedom to make things look horrible and because, according to a certain line of criticism, it inherently shapes us towards simplistic, bullet-pointed thinking. To use design speak, its affordances are part of how many of us think and how business works. 

Whatever you think of it, it is the medium in which every advertising campaign launches. The creative luminary Sir John Hegarty once wrote that the creative brief is the first ad in the campaign and it was the creative’s job to make it better. That may be, but the first time something that looks like the advertising has to convince an audience to do something is via a medium we have come to call the deck.

In my first job, as a management consultant, my boss would leave stacks of A4 paper on my desk with scribbles on them and I would have to decode his writing and turn each piece of A4 into a slide. That was collaboration, back in the day. Today, in advertising at least, it’s more likely that the deck will be worked on by a variety of people, possibly from different agencies. 

It’s a collaborative, social endeavor, made possible because presentations are modular – each slide is a separate entity that can be altered independently. Presentations are the social objects around which all departments of the agency coalesce to present a united front, and integrated solutions, to clients. However, in part because of this ongoing collaboration, the deck itself is sometimes neglected.

Part of the joy of PowerPoint is putting design tools into everyone’s hands – but that doesn’t make them designers. PowerPoint (or Keynote) are easy to use and to use badly, even at public performances like a conference. 

You know what I mean, boring slides of bullet points, a default template, poorly considered clipart, and a presenter who is reading bullet points rather than telling a story. This is partially because we have confused different use cases and just use PowerPoints for everything. Presentations are designed to be presented, the slides are visual aids, but PowerPoints are often hybrid documents that need to be read, presentations without a presenter. This creates clunky chimeras.

There is perhaps a sense that ‘dammit it’s the content that matters,’ but this is to very much miss the point. A key thing, if not the key thing, that people in advertising should believe, is that how you say, and present, something is just as important as what you are saying. That is, indeed, what advertising agencies do, shaping products, promises and corporate messaging into ideas that regular people might want to pay attention to.   

Most people consider public speaking their greatest fear and, consequently, most people are bad at it. This is a problem in advertising since we have to continuously sell every strategy and idea to our clients via presentations. As Russell Davies points out in his lovely new book, Everything I Know I Learned from PowerPoint, presentation software levels the field to a certain degree. It holds a speaker to the overall narrative and gives them functional and even emotional support. It gives people who aren’t automatically proffered attention a way to feel powerful in front of an audience. 

Presenting is usually considered a soft skill but it isn’t – it’s absolutely mission critical. Great presenters are rainmakers. If an agency can’t sell its ideas, it won’t last long. When Davies was head of planning at Wieden & Kennedy, they made some extremely famous, award-winning work, for Honda and Nike and Coke. 

How did W&K get brands to buy brave, brilliant creative work that still looks different to most ads for cars, shoes and soda? Davies explains: “Our presentations were as brilliant as our advertising. We regularly managed to make clients cry, in a good way, often by reading them a poem…We used PowerPoint to invent a new kind of meeting: we combined performance, art, language, design and enormous words on a screen into a sort of elaborate business theatre.” 

As Paul Feldwick explains in his most recent book, the peddler sings because entertainment is the cost of entry to someone’s brain when trying to sell them something. The best agencies, the ones that consistently sell, and thus produce, the creative work we all admire, know how to sing a powerful story…while pointing at a series of images.