PowerPoint to the People

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use the same recording tools to create a multimedia presentation, then place it into the marketplace, which is divided into content areas such as technology, finance, and marketing. You can give your content away for free—and a number of BrainShark authors are already doing so as a marketing vehicle—or set a price. (The average seems to be about $15; BrainShark collects an unspecified portion of that as a fee for using the service.) Individual buyers receive access to the online presentation for the next year. If you like, you can set a higher price for institutional access—essentially, a license allowing anyone inside a company to view the presentation. You can also specify whether or not users can customize and re-use your presentation.

Gustafson—who’s been in the e-learning business since the 1980s and sold his first company, a software training course developer called Relational Courseware, to Gartner in 1995—thinks the BrainShark Content Network will attract users who would rather “crowdsource” the work of creating standard business presentations. “Companies are spending massive amounts of money to recreate e-learning content every year, just to keep it fresh,” he says. “Now if you can turn the whole model inside out, just like Wikipedia did to Encyclopaedia Britannica, and let the whole army of independent people create content for you, you can [update your e-learning content] at much greater scale and lower cost and everyone can win.”

Of course, every business person today has had the experience of being stuck in a darkened room where the speaker is relying on a long, boring, but colorful PowerPoint deck as a substitute for real human engagement (which is the New Yorker essay’s main beef). Indeed, critics like information designer Edward Tufte have blasted PowerPoint’s bullet-point organizational style for promoting careless thinking; Tufte’s electrifying essay “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint” investigates PowerPoint’s role in the decision-making (or lack thereof) at NASA that led to the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003. I asked Gustafson whether the world really needs a marketplace for PowerPoint presentations, when so many of them are so bad.

“I’ve heard the arguments,” Gustafson replied. “But the reality of it is that 30 million PowerPoint presentations are delivered every day, and who am I to say that’s a bad thing?” (Gustafson’s use of the statistic is what led me back to the New Yorker piece, where it first appeared.) “You could look at any form of communication, whether it’s BrainShark or writing an article or giving a speech, and find somebody who is doing it poorly.”

Fair enough. And Gustafson says BrainShark offers live sessions and webinars on how users can improve the content of their presentations. “From working with customers over the years we’ve gathered best practices about the best ways to create BrainSharks and use them in your applications, whether it be marketing or selling or training,” he says.

In the end, it makes sense to test whether there’s a real demand for ready-made business presentations, given that BrainShark’s system makes it so easy to create, sell, and deliver them. “We believe there is a big interest in rich multimedia content,” says Gustafson. “A lot of people are looking at their kids using Facebook and MySpace and saying, ‘How can I apply that to my business?’ We can tap into a huge army of experts worldwide, and let people publish content at no cost other than the investment of turning their material into rich content—which is so easy and inexpensive with BrainShark that we think it’s a game changer.”

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • This is a game changing approach that builds a sustainable business model with a social networking infrastructure. We’ve seen many breakthrough approaches that frequently require disruptive technologies to really impact a given market. This brings a great brand (PowerPoint)with major market penetration to new levels. Best of luck.