The Power of Slideshows: The History of Corporate Multimedia Presentations

Category Technology

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The power of slideshows to communicate stories has been known since the 1948 Seagram-Vitarama, a traveling extravaganza of a slideshow that was the first A/V presentation ever given at a sales meeting. 35mm film slides, 16mm film, and digital projectors have all been used for high-impact presentations, and companies still use these today to leverage the dramatic power of images in corporate promotions, public relations, and internal communications.

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It’s 1948, and it isn’t a great year for alcohol. Prohibition has come and gone, and booze is a buyer’s market again. That much is obvious from Seagram’s annual sales meeting, an 11-city traveling extravaganza designed to drum up nationwide sales. 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 .

35mm film slides were introduced in 1961 and were an improvement from the earlier 16mm film

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 .

Some of the biggest corporate presentations used 7,000 of these 35mm slides with as many as 80 Kodak projectors

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 .

Business presentations were not just about data, but featured segments of dramatic story-telling, operettas, and music performances

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 sound of slides clacking is deafening. But it doesn’t matter, because the champagne is flowing and the sound system is loud. The 2,500 dignitaries and VIPs in the audience are being treated to an hourlong operetta about luxury travel .

The idea of the multi-image presentation originated with the Seagram-Vitarama from 1948

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 .

The current state of presentations now is similar to the original Seagram-Vitarama, but with digital content instead of physical slides

Before PowerPoint, and long before digital projectors, 35-millimeter film slides were king. Bigger, clearer, and less expensive to produce than 16-millimeter film, and more colorful and higher-resolution than video, slides were the only medium for the kinds of high-impact presentations given by CEOs and top brass at annual meetings for stockholders, employees, and salespeople. Known in the business as "multi-image" shows, these presentations required a small army of producers, photographers, and live production staff to pull off .

Corporate presentations before digital projectors could require up to a dozen people, including producers, photographers, production assistants, and presenters

First the entire show had to be written, storyboarded, and scored. Images were selected from a library, photo shoots arranged, animations and special effects produced. A white-gloved technician developed, mounted, and dusted each slide before dropping it into the carousel. Thousands of cues were programmed in the high-end systems—­everything from diming lights to altering speed—all manually triggered by the operator via a series of buttons .

Today, you don’t need an A/V crew to throw a “multi-image” show. You just need the original Seagram-Vitarama program and a digital projector. Multimedia has never been cheaper or easier. But it’s still theater. We’re trying to do the same thing that man did back in 1948: communicate a story with slides. It’s the same story but with a high-tech twist.

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