Death Without PowerPoint


The woman on my computer screen waves her hand from left to right over the image and says, with a cut-glass English accent, “The X axis.” She then waves the same hand from top to bottom, saying, “And the Y axis.” This is what I'm missing in the corona press conferences.

A few years ago I took a presentation course. In her video, the instructor explained the importance of precise gestures in a scientific presentation, such as when elucidating a graph. It felt a little over the top; like asking your colleagues if they want a coffee while holding up pictures of a cup and some coffee beans. But it was part of a larger point she wanted to make: that academics must do more than just point at their PowerPoint slides when holding a talk, executing a move known as Death by PowerPoint; no, you are presenting, so you need to hold the audience's attention.

The course was on my mind as I watched THAT press conference last Saturday. Together with a host of other thoughts, since talking head Jaap van Dissel had thrust my head into a lockdown after only thirty seconds. His contribution to the event seemed to be delivered in one long sentence. I caught that the virus had pulled on a different coat, but the subsequent stream of warnings failed to reach my ears.

A good speech makes a lasting impression and inspires without PowerPoint, but that was not the aim of this press conference. This was an exercise in crisis communication because it had taken only days for the situation to plunge the Netherlands into confusion. But the focus on the well-dressed talking heads has become so extreme that the message has been reduced to Rutte-like 'I find this terribly frustrating' empathy, followed by a bulleted list of measures fired off in quick succession.

For the first time in my life, I found myself missing PowerPoint slides. I wanted to see graphs, bar charts and other visuals better able to paint a picture of the seriousness of the Omicron threat than Jaap could put into words. I wanted visuals showing what happens if we do or do not take action; illustrating the purpose of the measures; *why* are we closing everything down, and *why* should we comply with the new measures? What does that tall peak if we do nothing mean, and so on.

Regrettably, they got no further on Saturday than vague references to a coat and scenarios being played out in the United Kingdom and Denmark.

Like the late response, poor crisis communication is a strong factor in why the Netherlands is doing so badly. Perhaps it is so that a considerable number of deaths could have been prevented had the crisis communication included more than fifteen-minute storylines. Next time I would like to see that not only sign language interpreter Irma is up there on stage gesticulating, but also that Mark is explaining with his hands what exactly the x and y axes on the PowerPoint slide mean.

Share this article