10 tips for great storytelling from a PowerPoint novelist



10 tips for great storytelling from a PowerPoint novelist

18 Aug 2010 9:00 AM
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People do astonishing things with PowerPoint, but author Jennifer Egan has brought PowerPoint into a whole new level: literature. She’s written a chapter of her latest novel, “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” (Knopf) entirely in PowerPoint.

You read that correctly. What she’s done is frankly amazing. SmartArt charts show the relationships of the characters. Graphs show their conflict and the passion that both binds and divides them. A rich, multilayered story unfolds.

When I spoke with her recently, I was so inspired by her passion for the program that I asked her to come up with 10 tips for storytelling in PowerPoint. You don’t have to be a novelist: Her tips apply to anyone using PowerPoint to convey complicated ideas. Here’s her list:

1. Read as many PowerPoint presentations as possible, ideally on an array of different topics.  Copy and save individual slides that jump out as graphically interesting. Look at them outside the context of the presentations they came from and think about how and why they’re successful at storytelling.

2. Write directly into PowerPoint, rather than sketching out ideas and trying to import them into PowerPoint later on.

3. Work in black and white initially; structure is what matters most, and color can be distracting early on.

4. Start by jotting down elements of a dramatic moment as bullet points on an individual slide. Add or subtract elements until you have a collection on one slide that feels organically connected.

5. Study this collection of bullet points and ask yourself HOW they’re connected. What relationship do they describe — a cycle? A chain of events? A hierarchy? Think also about which elements are primary. Are there two main ideas and three smaller ideas that are subsets of those main ideas?

6. Cycle through the SmartArt graphics. Select several whose structure resonates with the bullet points in front of you, and copy the bullet points into each of them. Keep as many versions as seem intriguing and move on.

7. For moments that won’t conform to pre-existing Smart Art Graphics, try copying and arranging individual shapes onto slides. If a fictional moment has a strong architectural feature — a table, a wall — think about ways to suggest that graphically and possibly organize the information around it.

8. For more complex moments, consider graphics that allow for several different readings: vertically, horizontally, even diagonally.

9.  As you begin to collect slide moments, think about natural ways to divide those moments into groups.  Time and space are the obvious categories:  does the story unfold in a series of locations, or at a few designated times?  Think about ways to transition from one slide-group to the next.

10.  View your slides in succession, using the Slideshow format, so that the shapes and text fill your whole screen.  When the flow seems off, or the graphics not quite right, jump immediately back into individual slides and make changes.  ALWAYS duplicate a slide before you begin to tinker with it; sometimes it can be hard to recapture your original effect.

Here’s something that may be even more amazing than the chapter, titled “Great Rock and Roll Pauses”: Egan said she knew virtually nothing about PowerPoint until she decided to write it this way. She just plunged into it with reckless abandon. “It was like a mad obsession. It was a passion,” Egan said. “We were on vacation on the beach and I was sitting in the house doing PowerPoint… I was like a woman possessed.”

But viewing the chapter/deck/whatever-you-want-to-call-it, it’s obvious she has an extraordinary command of the language of PowerPoint. The chapter is told from the viewpoint of a 12-year-old girl, and as the title implies, hinges greatly on things left unsaid and the pauses between things that are said. As it turned out, PowerPoint was ideal for conveying that concept.

“I think (PowerPoint) ended up being the format in which I could lay bare the deep, underlying ideas of the whole book,” Egan said. “I think it breaks down a narrative into a sequence of moments that basically hang in the air, and then give up their place to the next moment. Conventional fiction is all about giving this impression of continuity. In PowerPoint, the connective stuff falls away, and that was really different from what I normally do. The only way to write fiction in PowerPoint successfully is to work without that continuity; you’re picking these particular moments to connect the whole.”

So far, critical reaction has been very positive. Check out these reviews from the New York Times, the Washington Post and Time Magazine. “I’m amazed at how open people were to reading fiction in PowerPoint. The fear is that it’s just a gimmick…but I wouldn’t have included the chapter if it felt like that.  In the end, it was the opposite of a gimmick:  It allowed me to write fiction in a way I hadn’t before.”

You can see the chapter embedded  on her website, www.jenniferegan.com/books, and you can buy the book here from Amazon.com. Egan is a fantastic evangelist for PowerPoint, so we’re hoping to feature her on upcoming episodes of “The Office Show.” Stay tuned…

— Doug Kim