PowerPoint to the People

A 2001 New Yorker essay entitled “Absolute PowerPoint” contained the stunning claim that over 30 million PowerPoint presentations were being given every day. The article attributed this statistic to Microsoft; it did not say how the company gathered the data. But whatever the actual prevalence of PowerPoint in 2001, it’s surely even greater now, given that many more people own laptops today than seven years ago. In fact, PowerPoint has become such a universal medium that it wouldn’t be surprising to see great fields of PowerPoint presentations blooming on the Web, alongside other forms of user-generated content.

And that’s just what is happening. BrainShark of Waltham, MA, today officially opened the world’s first repository for ready-made business presentations, complete with audio narration. Some of the presentations are free; others cost $15 to $50. It’s like YouTube meets Amazon for PowerPoint.

BrainShark, a nine-year-old, 110-employee company that’s raised a total of $23 million in funding from the likes of Flagship Ventures, Ticonderoga Capital, SI Ventures, and Citizens Capital, is known mainly for software that allows users (mainly executives at the large companies that subscribe to the service) to upload PowerPoint presentations to a Web-based authoring tool, then record an audio track over the telephone. Customers or employees can then access the finished presentations online as part of marketing, training, or “e-learning” campaigns. Over 700 companies use the service, including more than a third of the Fortune 100, according to BrainShark CEO Joe Gustafson.

But the company recently realized that there might be demand for a PowerPoint exchange—somewhere a company’s HR executives could go, for example, to find a pre-made but customizable presentation on workplace sexual harassment reporting policies, rather than having to build one from scratch. PowerPoint has long included an “AutoContent Wizard” that provides templates for specific situations such as “Employee Orientation,” “Project Post-Mortem,” and even “Communicating Bad News.” And the New Yorker exaggerated only slightly in saying that these templates are “so close to finished presentations you barely need to do more than add your company logo.” But not even the wizards at Microsoft can think of every business scenario in advance. Enough of the business world’s collective wisdom is now embedded in PowerPoint files (and perhaps nowhere else) that BrainShark believes the time has come for a rich marketplace for presentations.

“A couple of things happened recently that caused us to go to market with a content network,” says Gustafson. “The first is we are just a big enough company now to expand into an additional line of business. Also, in the marketplace you’ve got a confluence of things: a greater interest in multimedia generated by YouTube; a greater interest in user-generated content with blogging and Wikipedia; and people are more and more comfortable accessing information online. And over the years we’ve had customers come to us and say, ‘We bought BrainShark to create our own proprietary content, but we’re often creating content that we could probably buy off the shelves, as long as we could customize 10 or 20 percent of it to fit our needs.’ So we think the whole e-learning market is ripe for being turned on its head.”

Here’s how it works—starting with BrainShark’s existing presentation-authoring process, as explained by Gustafson: “You give us your PowerPoint file and it’s automatically uploaded to our secure servers. We process it to our format, and then we come back to your screen with a telephone number that you dial and enter a secure password. The automated attendant says, ‘To start recording, press this key,’ and from then on your phone is in control over your PC browser. You see your first slide in front of you. Just like with voice mail, you add some dialogue to that slide. Then you press a key on go on to Slide 2. You can stop, listen, edit, delete, and re-record. When you hang up the phone, we process it, put the audio file together with the visuals, and combine it into a link to a regular URL. Anyone who goes to that URL can play back that content on any system from any browser.”

What’s new is the BrainShark Content Network. Say you’re an expert on Sarbanes-Oxley reporting regulations. After registering with BrainShark as an author (which involves some pre-screening, meaning the network isn’t strictly equivalent to YouTube and other user-generated content sites), you can 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.”

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.