Johnny Banchero's Big Pitch
An Appreciation of PowerPoint
A story with PowerPoint in the title is interesting only if you are some kind of document geek. For everyone else, think of this as an esoteric little tale set in the corporate American landscape. Think cubicle-land in a large healthcare insurance company, 5-building suburban campus, all the meetings and action items and team building, and so on.
I was part of a 30-person Creative Services team within a division of marketing and business-line people. Our group was an anomaly among this legion of information workers because we were an artsy, eclectic crew of writers, designers, editors, animators and videographers, many who came from the ad agency world. Our group was into comic books, rave culture, theatrical stuff, stand up comedy and craft projects. Everyone seemed to have a side hustle related to creativity.
Enter one Johnny Banchero, our protagonist, a late 20-something guy from the business side of the house. Relative to our tight knit team he was an outsider. But he sat near us and was a witty high-energy guy, so we liked him. Johnny went to the local boys prep high school, where my son was going. It seemed like his family was pretty well connected in that world. He was maybe five years out of college, in that no man’s land where you are too old for the cool kids but too young to settle into the family man thing.
He and I typically talked sports and Jesuit High and company scuttlebutt. At one point we verged into Burning Man and some bohemian topics in my realm. That’s when I realized there was another side to this kid. He mentioned a maritime festival he was considering going to, called “Ephemerisle.” It was a sort of under-the-radar gathering out on the San Joaquin Delta featuring a makeshift shanty town of boats and homemade crafts all tied together, like something out of the movie WaterWorld. The online photos showed performance art, new technologists, trippy decorations and lighting, and lots of partying. It seemed like a pretty interesting Silicon Valley type of thing.
I didn’t think much of it until I received a meeting invite from young Johnny with this intriguing title:
Ephemerisle — a floating celebration of community, learning, art and seasteading.
We construct a floating city on the Sacramento River Delta and live on it for five days.
Three other guys on our creative crew were invited. What was this all about? Did he want “seasteading” advice? Why did he invite the four of us? Did this young guy deem us four somehow suggestible and predisposed to his mission?
A few words about PowerPoint, the much-maligned medium. Who hasn’t been the victim of bad PowerPoint, you know, sitting through one of those soul-crushing presentations that drone on with dense, jargon-heavy slides, grinding you into submission. So maligned is this software, it’s become symbolic of all that is stale and boring and wrong with corporate work. “Send me your deck! It’s in the deck!” The deck is everything. With a deck you can pitch your billion-dollar concept, your business strategy, your product design. And in many cases a clever deck can justify one’s own existence on the org chart. It is existential: You are your deck...Ommmmm.
And when putting slides together, don’t run afoul of the so-called best practices: Make it telegraphic, fewer words, simplify, speaker notes to compliment slides, don’t merely read the slide...DO NOT be a reader! It should be noted, like tools in general, PowerPoint as a tool is only as good as the user.
In recent years an alternative tool called Prezi has emerged. It’s a hip millennial app offering more dynamic, nonlinear navigation through your material. Prezi is cool, but it’s not likely to escape its niche given the 800 lb gorilla that is the Microsoft Office Suite.
It’s easy to beat up on PowerPoint, which has become a lightning rod for broader critiques of corporate culture. Some critics higher up on the “content” food chain are especially merciless. Witness information design author Edward Tuftle, who in the aftermath of the space shuttle crash sought to blame PowerPoint. His post mortem called out Boeing corporate stiffs who, according to him, botched their information delivery by being too reductive: “The language, spirit, and presentation tool of the pitch culture had penetrated throughout the NASA organization, even into the most serious technical analysis, the survival of the shuttle.”
Sure, Ed and other smart guys can criticize, but these ivory tower Merlins with their idealized academic expectations seem ill-equipped to understand life in the everyday trenches. As I've already mentioned, maybe a tool is only as good as the craftsman who wields it.
So we show up for Johnny’s meeting, and right out of the gate he leans in and confesses that he has not told his girlfriend about the festival. He’s torn—wants to be honest, but hasn’t shared because she might think this project is really about getting with the Waterworld babes. Which was probably true.
I appreciated that he saw us creatives as kindred to his mission. Here was a guy in a business role who was looking to expand his world. Who doesn’t love that? It should also be noted that he was likely trying to get a crew together to provide cover relative to his girlfriend. A solo dude is trolling whereas going with a group is just good team fun.
So then Johnny fires up the big flat screen and there’s a nice cover slide laid out just like it might be about customer segmentation or any number of marketing topics. But it’s way more esoteric. Everyone in the room laughed, realizing what a crazy thing this meeting actually was. I remember the four of us trading glances. Is this for real? Then he launched into a 15-minute spiel where he methodically broke down the festival topic with excellent and engaging presentation skills: background details, bullets, photos from the festival website. There was even a fucking benefits slide!
He moved through the perfunctory information to the part about how we would have to build a vessel. What?!? Much like Burning Man, this festival was premised on a strong DIY ethic. At a minimum our rig would have to float. It also had to solve human creature problems: where to cook, sleep, shit, etc. This was no small thing, and here Johnny's ambition revealed itself with several raft construction plans.
Like any good presentation, he built toward a big close, “the ask” as it’s called. The closing slide was awesome, featuring some large statements, all tied up with a bow of iron-clad logic. At this point he acknowledged the goofy nature of his effort with a few chuckles in a “kidding, not-kidding” sort of way. Wisely he didn’t finish with the hard close of “who’s in?” Instead he asked us to “think about it” and that it could be a memorable trip.
Johnny, being an adept meeting manager, has left time for questions and discussion. We batted around some practical issues, and each of us mumbled something about the uncertainty of our wives granting a Hall Pass. I’m pretty sure we all knew in that moment we would never be setting sail on this mission. But Johnny was so good natured and so naively optimistic, we had to play along with it. The whole thing was just beautiful in its sense of expansive utopian possibility.
We filed out of the conference room trying to process the contrary reality. Each of us quickly and predictably begged off. Johnny then executed his backup plan, which was to hook up with an existing boat and crew—he said there were online mechanisms for free agents like himself to get involved. During the run-up he shared updates, and then afterward, stories of the festival bacchanalia. The elements were interesting if not expected: drunkenness and sunburn, sleep challenges, maritime logistics, and new friends.
Johnny’s random pitch meeting continues to stand out amid so many years of rote project meetings. It’s the story of a guy trying to get out of his comfort zone and find a new tribe. And not least of all its about an especially great use of Microsoft PowerPoint. I looked it up and there have other unorthodox decks: the kid who wanted to buy Grand Theft Auto and made a deck to pitch his parents; the guy who made an absurdly detailed complaint about bad hotel service, the gal who used it to ask her crush for a date...aww lovebirds and Microsoft PowerPoint!
My brother-in-law and I have long threatened to do a Christmas Eve PowerPoint for the family talent show, since he and I are pretty thin in the singing and talent department. Hell, if God had invented computers back then, Moses would have done some slides instead of that heavy ass tablet.
My sympathy is obvious—PowerPoint is possibly our most accessible medium for aspirational expression, connected to the hardwired human need to impress, convince, position, build, overcome, succeed. Who doesn’t have a magnum opus just waiting to be formatted into slides? In the end, isn’t PowerPoint merely a reflection of ourselves? The first step toward a better life is having a well-constructed deck—and if your deck is subpar, look into your own soul, grasshopper.
It is only right that we conclude with a vision of the man behind the Microsoft curtain. There he is, Bill Gates himself, with a studious smile and a nod. I want to believe the bespeckled Nerd King might have some sympathy in his big brain for our guy Johnny and his inspired pitch deck!
I’ve left a few minutes for questions and discussion...I’ll send a copy to everyone on the invite list…thanks for joining!! :)