I have been thinking recently of the importance of packaging. You go to the supermarket to buy, say, a detergent. You look at the great variety of products in colourful boxes and, accordingly, the wide range of prices, and think: this is just a detergent, why make so many different kinds? But on a closer inspection you find out that it is in fact one and the same product, made by the same company, almost certainly at the same factory in Turkey, with slightly varying smells, but sold under different brands, in highly distinctive packages, and for wildly diverging prices. So what am I buying here? The box with a brand name?
Form is now valued more than the substance it contains. This can be said of any number of other things we buy every day. But it can also be said of other, less tangible things, like food that looks great on Instagram, but tastes mediocre. Or, like information reported by authoritative-looking people on TV, that turns out to be an “alternative fact”.
It has become particularly bad with presentation of information. Graphical, textual, and live. Have you ever seen an infographic that looked stunning and profound, but turned out to be a collection of rubbish prettily arranged? But it grabbed your attention with a fake sheen of professionalism. It fooled you with its neat design that is actually a generic template from a specialised website. It works the other way too. If a text is shoddily formatted with odd fonts here and there, you wouldn’t think its worthy of reading. A good text doesn’t come in bad format, is today’s preconception.
It wasn’t like that just a few decades ago. Especially with giving speeches – that’s what they were called, not presentations. Back then substance was more important. All detergents came in the same good old “Lotos” cardboard box, and the speeches were delivered in a recognisable monotonous voice of a Buddhist monk, read from a sheet of paper. You can still catch one of those “presentations” listening to an older government official – best cure for insomnia.
In pace with the times, education now places a high priority on presentations skills, on formatting and style, on form. So much priority even, that in a presentation the what often becomes less important than the how. It does prepare students for the real world though: few people actually bother to read the contents of a detergent box or investigate if the facts on the news are “alternative” or plain. And so some teachers don’t bother reading student papers or checking what they present (after all, the actual information is probably generic and came from a specialised website). In today’s fast-changing world, grabbing attention is key, delivering on a promise is secondary, and the substance (information included) is generic and mass-produced.