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The Making of the Gettysburg PowerPoint Presentation

Why I did it

“Doesn’t he realize this presentation is a waste of time? Why doesn’t he just tell us what matters and get it over with?”

How many times have you heard (or muttered) that? How many of of us have been frustrated at seeing too many presentations where PowerPoint or other visual aids obscure rather than enhance the point? After one too many bad presentations at a meeting in January 2000, I decided to see if I could do something about it.

How I did it

Back in my hotel room I imagined what Abe Lincoln might have done if he had used PowerPoint rather than the power of oratory at Gettysburg. (I chose the Gettysburg speech because it was shorter than, say, the Martin Luther King “I have a dream” speech, and because I had an idea for turning “four score and seven years” into a gratuitous graph.) A Google search easily found the text of the Gettysburg address, and several articles echoing my frustration, including USA Today writer Kevin Maney’s PowerPoint obsession takes off, which notes that PowerPoint was banned at Sun, and includes the Lincoln idea: “Put another way, imagine if Abe Lincoln had PowerPoint for the Gettysburg Address. ‘OK, this slide shows our nation four score and seven years ago.’” But as far as I could tell, nobody had actually written and published a Gettysburg PowerPoint presentation. (Note: a reader pointed out that John S. Rigden had an article in the March 1990 issue of Physics Today entitled “The Lost Art of Oratory: Damn the Overhead Projector” that also used the Gettysburg Address concept. David Wittenberg and Susan Hessler were nice enough to send me copies.) I started up PowerPoint and let the “Autocontent Wizard” help me create a new presentation. I selected the “Company Meeting (Online)” template, and figured from there I’d be creative in adding bad design wherever possible. I was surprised that the Autocontent Wizard had anticipated my desires so well that I had to make very few changes. Four of the slide titles were taken directly from the template; I only had to delete a few I didn’t need, and add “Not on the Agenda” after “Agenda”.

I wasn’t a professional designer, so I thought I’d be in for a late night doing some serious research: in color science to find a truely garish color scheme; in typography to find the worst fonts; and in overall design to find a really bad layout. But fortunately for me, the labor-saving Autocontent Wizard took care of all this for me! It suggested a red-on-dark-color choice for the navigation buttons that makes them very hard to see; it chose a serif font for the date that is illegible in low-resolution web mode, and of course Excel outdid itself on the graph, volunteering the 0.1 to 0.9 between the 0 and 1 new nations. All I had to do was take Lincoln’s words and break them into pieces, making sure that I captured the main phrases of the original, while losing all the flow, eloquence, and impact.

I posted the presentation on my web site that night and promptly forgot about it. But some people noticed, and it began to spread by word of mouth (and link, and email), as the following

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