One evening last week, about 120 people gathered at the Drake Hotel in Toronto and expectantly took their seats. Smiling broadly, dressed in a collared shirt and pleated pants, Matt Ginsberg, 28, got on stage. “Hello everyone. I’ve been asked to come here tonight to speak to you on a very important topic,” he said, to warm applause. Ginsberg then turned to face the PowerPoint presentation queued up behind him and sighed deeply, considering the talk he was about to give. Giggles erupted from the crowd. He read from the first slide: “Should you keep bees in your pants? An honest debate.”
Ginsberg had never seen this deck of PowerPoint slides before getting on stage—he didn’t even know what the topic would be. That’s the idea behind PowerPoint Karaoke, which is half improv comedy, half parody of corporate culture, and a way to reclaim one of the most loved—and reviled—computer programs of all time.
Microsoft’s PowerPoint makes it easy to present information as bullet points and graphs; but in the wrong hands, it can become an instrument of mind-numbing torture. Bad PowerPoint presentations “feel like they’re never going to end, and you’re going to die watching this person’s deck,” says Jay Goldman, 33, who co-organized the Toronto event. “We’re taking something horrible and turning it into something funny.”
Launched in 1987 for Macs, PowerPoint was bought later that year by Microsoft; the first Windows version shipped in 1990, says Robert Gaskins, the program’s inventor. While it wasn’t the first presentation software, it was arguably the most user-friendly. More visually oriented than its predecessors, “it took a task that many people wanted to do, and made it simpler,” he says. After PowerPoint was packaged with Microsoft Office—which includes Word and Excel and, according to Microsoft, is now installed on over one billion PCs worldwide—it became the default program of its kind. Gaskins says he’s seen it used for everything from making animation to delivering church sermons.
The backlash was inevitable. Design expert Edward Tufte, a professor emeritus at Yale University, has argued that PowerPoint degrades communication by putting format before content, turning “everything into a sales pitch.” And a parody from Peter Norvig, a director of research for Google, takes one of history’s best-known speeches—the Gettysburg address—and chops it up into a PowerPoint presentation rife with bullet points, like “Met on battlefield (great).”
Several years ago, artists in Berlin channelled this exasperation into what they called PowerPoint Karaoke. The tech community latched on, and its popularity continues to grow. An event was just held at Twitter’s first developer conference, and in February, Goldman and Tom Purves, two active members of Toronto’s tech community, organized the city’s first event. “PowerPoint’s become ubiquitous in business communication,” says Purves, 34. “This is an act of rebellion.”
One of nine participants last week was Geoff Hendry, a writer and comedian, whose first slide showed a numberless graph plunging downwards. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re here to talk about the BizCo annual report,” he said. “As you can see, things are not going well.” Hendry peppered his talk with jargon—“synergy,” “activity vector”—in a send-up of management talks. Ginsberg, a product manager at Sears Canada, has little experience with improv, but is “an expert in what a PowerPoint presentation should look like,” he says, because he sits through them once a week. He was one of three finalists.
Gaskins calls PowerPoint Karaoke “very funny,” partly because “it’s every presenter’s worst nightmare—suddenly finding yourself in front of a big audience and not knowing what you’re going to say.” The term “PowerPoint Karaoke,” he says, used to refer to something different: “It meant presenters who’d get up to speak, stare at the slides on the screen and read them.” In other words, the worst kind of PowerPoint presentation.
As Ginsberg says, “anybody who works in an office will both adore PowerPoint and hate it.” In perhaps the ultimate proof of that love-hate relationship, last week’s event was sponsored by Microsoft, and one raffle winner got to take home a copy of Microsoft Office Professional 2010. It includes, of course, a brand-new version of PowerPoint.