If the medium is the message, would McLuhan like PowerPoint®?

Written by

Greta Stahl

Marshall McLuhan was one of the earliest scholars to discuss the changing nature of media in the electronic age and today would have been his 100th birthday.  Famous for coining the phrase “the medium is the message,” he devoted a great deal of attention to explaining how television changed the way the audience understands and participates in content.  In his commentary on the landing of Sputnik, he called this new type of viewer a “simultaneous man” who prefers “flexibility and diversity” and lives in a “global theatre.”  “On Spaceship Earth there are no passengers; everybody is a member of the crew.” He unpacked some of these ideas on the television program Our World in 1967.


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McLuhan’s ideas have recently resurfaced, as many are now applying his theories to the proliferation of electronic media forms.  If television once created a generational gap between parents and their children, one can only wonder what McLuhan would have thought of the internet and the new era of transmedia storytelling.


In McLuhan’s posthumous work Laws of Media, he argued that all forms of media have a tetrad of effects, or four different types of influence on society.  He posed these effects as questions: What does the medium enhance? What does the medium make obsolete?  What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced? What does the medium flip into when pushed to extremes?


Although McLuhan focused most of his writing on television, it is worth thinking about how his ideas intersect with another medium – the presentation. Unlike television, presentations often include a combination of in-person communication and electronic media that offers good presenters an opportunity to use their medium to engage their audience.


But how do presentations fit into McLuhan’s tetrad?  The answer may depend on what the presenter does well.  For presenters who give thought to how to use their slides successfully, presentations can enhance communication, and form a connection that causes the audience to embrace the speaker’s goals.  They can retrieve the spoken word from seeming obsolescence in our visually focused culture (TED talks come to mind). For presenters who use technology poorly, however, mediums like PowerPoint run the danger of making the speaker themself obsolete as the audience focuses on the slides instead of the story.  Taken to the extreme, they may ultimately flip PowerPoint into obscurity as bored audiences try to find ways of avoiding yet another bad slideshow.  In order to prevent this fate, presenters should consider taking McLuhan’s advice and embrace the needs of “simultaneous man”: flexibility, diversity, and a need to be engaged in a meaningful way.


To explore more of McLuhan’s ideas, this great commemorative site celebrates his life.  Many examples of his work are now available electronically, marking his part in our cultural zeitgeist.  He even appeared as himself in the film Annie Hall.


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Perhaps McLuhan’s ideas can help inspire our next great communication theorist, as he has helped inspire us here at Duarte!