MIT Technology Review has a strangely fascinating new piece about the history of the corporate presentation. PowerPoint-esque slideshows have become ubiquitous for anyone who's ever spent a moment in a white collar or corporatized job setting. But as a narrative form — as I've now learned — the slideshow presentation dates all the way back to 1948, at an annual sales meeting for Seagram's whiskey:
No expense has been spared: there's the two-hour, professionally acted stage play about the life of a whiskey salesman. The beautiful anteroom displays. The free drinks. But the real highlight is a slideshow.
To call the Seagram-Vitarama a slideshow is an understatement. It's an experience: hundreds of images of the distilling process, set to music, projected across five 40-by-15-foot screens. "It is composed of pictures, yet it is not static," comments one awed witness. "The overall effect is one of magnificence." Inspired by an Eastman Kodak exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair, the Seagram-Vitarama is the first A/V presentation ever given at a sales meeting. It will not be the last.
In the late '40s, multimedia was a novelty. But by the early 1960s, nearly all companies with national advertising budgets were using multimedia gear—16-millimeter projectors, slide projectors, filmstrip projectors, and overheads—in their sales training and promotions, for public relations, and as part of their internal communications. Many employed in-house A/V directors, who were as much showmen as technicians. Because although presentations have a reputation for being tedious, when they're done right, they're theater. The business world knows it. Ever since the days of the Vitarama, companies have leveraged the dramatic power of images to sell their ideas to the world.
The Tech Review article follows the circus-like logistical planning of those early theatrical presentations, to the rise of multimedia, computer-driven slideshows in the 80s:
Onstage, a massive chorus, the entire Stockholm Philharmonic, and some 50 dancers and performers are fluttering around a pair of Saab 9000CD sedans. Stunning images of chrome details, leather seats, and open roads dance across a 26-foot-tall screen behind them. The images here are all analog: nearly 7,000 film slides, carefully arranged in a grid of 80 Kodak projectors. It's 1987, and slideshows will never get any bigger than this.
And up to the scaling of actual PowerPoint presentations, using massive projector screens. Like I said: weirdly fascinating!
Next slide, please: A brief history of the corporate presentation [Claire L. Evans / MIT Technology Review]