The New Universal Language

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There is a new universal language. It crept in sometime between the advent of the first fax machine and the death of the pager that we wore on our belts.

A quick quiz of most people about the universal language will generate responses like:

  • A kiss. It is the global signal of love although there are very few with whom I want to communicate with this language.
  • The middle finger. Everyone knows what it means and it is not good to be the recipient of the message so this language carries some unfortunate baggage. It is a language that almost always makes someone feel really bad.
  • English. Since most Americans speak no other language, we have imposed this language on the rest of the universe.
  • Music. A preferred language by all but now that MySpace has bazillions of bands and artists on it, there are too many dialects of the language. Which is better, Bach or Beastie Boys?
  • Food. Before salmonella, South Beach Diet and going vegan, this was a good language. Now it seems cluttered with too many celebrity chefs telling you how to communicate in this language
  • Money. Once the banks, the dollar, the stock market and the price of oil recover, this could be a good language again. In the meantime, money is an inconsistent language.

All the communication turmoil leaves just one universal language – PowerPoint.


Bill Gates may go down in history for his riches and for eliminating malaria, but his real contribution will be the creation of PowerPoint as the universal language. It is even being used as a social medium.

Last time I checked Wikipedia’s definition, it said that “a universal language is a hypothetical, historical or mythical language said to be spoken and understood by all or most of the world’s population. … it may be the primary language of all speakers, or the only existing language; in others, it is a fluent secondary language used for communication between groups speaking different primary languages. Some mythological or religious traditions state that there was once a single universal language among all people, or shared by humans and supernatural beings; this is not supported by historical evidence.”

The historical evidence is now all around us.

  • We speak in headlines backed up by a few bullets.
  • Entire books, like Nuts, Bolts and Jolts, are written of just bullets.
  • My children use PowerPoint in their grammar school everyday.
  • Meetings will not start until the projector warms up to show the PowerPoint presentation.
  • The three letters PPT are as well known as FYI, and IBM, LOL.
  • The phrase “Next Steps” is now as welcome as “Free” or “This is Not A Bill.”
  • News organizations, like eWeek, are delivering their stories in slideshows.
  • Companies are being formed to distribute PowerPoint presentations they’re being used as social media.
  • I’m posing my argument in bullets right now.

One of Venrock’s portfolio companies – Slideshare is leading the charge in in this area. New forms and styles of PowerPoint presentations are appearing. People are using PowerPoint to tell stories – like our friend Henry. They are using Slideshare to share heavy files and publish them broadly through the Web.

Next Steps

The good news about PPT is that it is efficient. The bad news is that it is often not effective unless accompanied by a non-virtual person. As a communication tool, it needs to tell a story. That’s all. As the new universal language PowerPoint needs to tell a story. Telling a story in PPT is tricky since, unlike other languages, it does not stand alone when read. It is more like a graphic novel.

The most welcome header in most presentations are the pages that begin with “Summary” or “Conclusion”. It needn’t be the case. Nor should the phrase, “Death by Powerpoint” be one that needs no explanation. Like all languages, the secret is in communicating in it well, not just blabbing on.

One of my friend’s nineteen year old daughters just gave a Powerpoint presentation to her parents to make the case for why she should move in with her boyfriend. It was effective. If Powerpoint can help make that happen, it has indeed become the universal language.


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