Can you be an objective advocate of ideas?
The "purple cow" of presentation design firms

Talking at them vs. talking with them

Last week, Harold Pinter's Nobel Lecture was shown in Stockholm. You can see the video of his speech as well as the transcripts (English, Swedish, French, German). Depending on your political leanings, your appreciation for the content of his speech may vary greatly indeed. But I think it is quite provocative, important, and worth a look.

Pinter on political theatre
I found Pinter's thoughts on writing political theatre interesting. With regards to political theatre, Pinter says,

"Sermonising has to be avoided at all cost. Objectivity is essential. The characters must be allowed to breathe their own air. The author cannot confine and constrict them to satisfy his own taste or disposition or prejudice. He must be prepared to approach them from a variety of angles,  from a full and uninhibited range of perspectives, take them by surprise, perhaps, occasionally, but nevertheless give them the freedom to go which way they will."

Again, Pinter is talking about writing good political theatre, of course. Still, he is talking about communication of ideas and I think we can apply a bit of his thinking to our own presentation approach. For example, is this (below) not good advice for many of us when presenting?

  • Avoid sermonizing
  • Be as objective as possible
  • Do not constrict or confine your audience, but engage them
  • Approach your topic and your engagement with the audience from a variety of angles. Surprise them. Allow them the opportunity to challenge, clarify, and offer up other opinions.

In part because of the "cognitive-style" of PowerPoint, many business and academic presentations inhibit engagement, interaction, and an "open-minded exploration of the truth." The "death-by-PowerPoint" approach treats the audience as if they were drones. And if not drones already, at least the presenter can hope with this approach that with enough didactic pitching of data, and ambiguous and superfluous visual material, the audience will become drone-like. In this presentation approach, you subdue the audience, beat them to death. Then in the end when there are few objections, you say that you are successful. You say that your audience got it. Understood it. And agree with it. Look, no objections!

An important question to ask
We should ask this question: Are we speaking at our audience or with them? If a speaker assumes he already knows all there is to know about the topic — or is simply not interested in hearing another side — he will tend to speak at an audience. This could be true regardless of whether slideware is used or not, though slideware may emphasize his dominance. Slideware itself, if one is not careful, could indeed make the presenter's whole approach seem pushy, overbearing, and one uninterested in debate or discussion. Says Edward Tufte, "PowerPoint's pushy style seeks to set up a speaker’s dominance over the audience. The speaker, after all, is making power points with bullets to followers...." Tufte goes on to say in this Wired article from 2003, "Could any metaphor be worse? Voicemail menu systems? Billboards? Television? Stalin?"

I don't know about Stalin, put the PowerPoint-aided presentation approach of many business people and academics today — and the rhetorical approach of many politicians today behind the podium or in front of the camera — reminds me of the scene from the Nineteen Eighty-Four
inspired TV commercial (called "1984") created to launch the first Macintosh computer. This commercial was created long before people used slideware (1983), but it is interesting to see how the "big brother" figure, energized with belief, conviction, and sound bites, dominates and talks at his dazed audience.

      1984_head   1984_ppt
Both screen shots above are from the actual commercial. Left: The "big brother" figure gives his "presentation" complete with text (running below his chin) and other on-screen "data." Right: A passive audience absorbs the speakers wisdom (as the heroine enters to save the day). Notice the slideware-like text of the speech projected on the back of the auditorium. It seems the creators thought this would be the kind of multimedia communication experience you would see in a nightmarish, didactic, presentation in a future dystopian society. It is quite interesting — some would say disturbing — that many presentation situations today are not too dissimilar to the fictitious, far-fetched scene in this 60-second TV commercial created in 1983 for a computer company.

Above: A screen shot edited in Photoshop with the text of the speaker's content appearing in bullet point slideware style.
"We shall prevail." I assume this is an intentionally ironic choice of words since this kind of communication approach is not interested in "we" except in the sense that "we" (that is, "us") must capitulate. And in real life, too, often audiences do capitulate, or at least appear to do so either out of boredom, resignation, or simple relief (joy?) that the speaker is finally finished.

See the original 1984 TV commercial here. The Curt's Media site also has a good discussion on the making of the video. This is still regarded as the "best commercial ever" in many circles.   

(In this post I did not elaborate at all on the real meat of Pinter's speech for it is far outside the scope of this site. Two quick comments, however: (1) Seeing the speech on video, after having read the transcripts, made it very clear to me how much Aristotle was right — the pathos and the ethos are extremely powerful proofs. Reading the contents was one thing, but listening to the man and seeing his face and getting the content was quite another. Actually, I am quite interested to hear your thoughts on the "presentation" of his ideas in Sweeden as well. For example, how different might it have played in front of a live audience? (2) I feel a bit uneasy even referencing Pinter's speech at all because the importance of his content — whether you agree with him or not — is infinitely more important than the simple contents of this website, presentation design. In the whole scheme of things, of course, the items we talk about on this website don't amount to much at all really.) 



Unless I missed it, it’s a shame that you took no stance to the “meat of the content.” Surly it’s a question of the dignity of man, how can one not agree? Alan.

marylyn donahue

Interesting it wasn't planned--Pinter's doctor forbid him to make the trip because of his health. What he did then as a man of theater was to create a speech. It now exists in space as an event making it all the more---not so much powerful--as effective. Because it is "performed" because he is a trained actor, the content is humanized, felt. On the page the speech comes off often 'sounding' like a polemic. To 'see' the speech staged (because it is, the red blanket draped over his knees, the wheel chair, the lighting...his gestures) it engages our emotions--whatever they may be---we are interested in the character--Pinter, the man. We wonder: Can he walk, is he in pain, is he dying? This gives what he says about truth (because the subject is in fact truth) more import.

I kept asking friends if they had seen it no one had. Those who read the speech in the newspaper were not as taken ---even if they shared the same point of view. Those who 'saw' the speech on video were knocked out.

public speaking tips

The speech was bad to the degree that i couldn't wtach the second half of the video.

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