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December 2016

More PowerPoint Nonsense From Smart People

Once again, I can bear witness to the reflexive reliance on technology over genuine eye-to-eye human contact. A few weeks ago, the new head of a regional arts commission in Maine opened a classical music concert by laying out her plans to enhance the local scene. Honoring the connection between brevity and clarity, she left a memorable impression. No visual aids. Just a well-dressed, articulate woman speaking directly to a receptive audience.

Two weeks later, she appeared at a breakfast gathering. Her listeners moved their chairs to a semi-circle along the wall as she stood between tables in front of a drop-down screen. Off went the lights, and she morphed into a featureless silhouette. We couldn't see her face, let alone any nonverbal signs such as eye movement or hand gestures. She was just there, a form with a voice and little else.

On went the PowerPoint and -- I'm not making this up -- her second slide consisted of a pie chart with print so small that you'd have to stand no more than three feet in front of the screen to make out the words. Then came photos of people doing an outdoor activity that I think portrayed artistic endeavors, although they violated Rule Number One for descriptive, as opposed to artistic, photography: Get close enough to read faces.

In a couple days, I'm traveling to Egypt to work on writing skills with foreign nationals at our embassy. I'll carve out a half-day for presentation and briefing skills, with a focus on role-playing, as I've done recently with other clients. The only props will be a couple flip charts for making key points and stimulating a conversation.

It's all about boosting students' self-confidence, which is the essence of effective and empathetic teaching.

Trump and the Press

The short-fingered vulgarian who's about to become Leader of the Free World has had me thinking about the place of the news media in our society. He talked about "opening up the libel laws" and the "dishonest press" and barred some news organizations from his raucous rallies. He also ranted evidence-free about a vast global conspiracy that includes big banks, pollsters, and the media. At least that was his desperate pitch until the suspicious re-emergence of his opponent’s email problems 11 days before the election.

At some point he'll erupt in fury at the White House press corps. I suppose that depends on whether he listens to his handlers or reverts to his one true source of advice -- himself. But I do know reporters won't be any easier on him than they've been on any president.

Journalists are obligated to question the policies and statements of anyone to whom voters entrust the responsibility of governing the world's greatest continuing experiment in self-rule. Will Trumpistas, having booed lustily and made threatening gestures at reporters covering his rallies, automatically distrust anything negative written about their man? For that matter, how many of them have any inkling about the role of a free press as envisioned by our Founding Fathers and supported by the courts over more than two centuries?

As to the media "bias" that the president-elect whines about, he's right in one significant way, and I’m sure that in his heart of hearts he values one press institution above any other in our society. I'm talking about Fox News, which has emerged since my days as a journalist as a propaganda arm for the GOP. One wag said that Fox's on-air "talent" is contractually obligated to mention "Benghazi" and "Clinton’s email" at least once every half-hour. Not likely, but that's where we've come in this age of cable shouters.

Right now, the press, which values conflict above all else, is looking forward to the real estate developer's time in office. In case you're wondering, reporters do not have the political "agenda" that many right-wingers claim. Individually, their only agenda is themselves -- the front-page bylines, on-air scoops, and analyses that earn them the praise of editors and producers and even peers. So…the New York Times broke the Clinton email story some 20 years after probing the Clintons' role in the Whitewater scandal in Arkansas. And the Washington Post and other publications have run one front-page story after another about Hillary's unpopularity and secrecy.

To be sure, journalists have been condemned by politicians of all stripes throughout our history, highlighted by Vice President Spiro Agnew's attack on the "nattering nabobs of negativism" during the paranoid Nixon years. But that's all part of the clatter and chaotic back-and-forth of a functioning democracy. A press that routinely praises presidents and cossets them with softball questions is characteristic of a one-party, authoritarian regime. Let's hope that Trump's views moderate on press relations. If not, believe me, most journalists aren't about to back off. That's not their job. It could get ugly.

Best wishes for the holidays.