PowerPoint: 5 Reasons to Not Kill it

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For twenty years now, I have been an avid PowerPoint user. When I started as a standup speaker and presenter in 1994, most people were still using clear acetate foils, hand-positioned on an overhead projector. The adventurous few – those who could afford a luggable laptop and projector, used Harvard Graphics. Microsoft Office quickly swallowed the desktops of the world, and along with Word and Excel, we were sort of forced to start making presentations using PowerPoint.

Since then people have loved to hate it. “It stops presenters from connecting with the audience,” they say. “Meaningless bullet points remove the learning opportunity,” they say. “The screen takes center stage and the presenter disappears,” they say, “So let’s ban it.”

This article, by professor Bent Meier Sørensen, published in the academics’ newsmagazine The Conversation, summarizes the common complaints:

  • students read ahead in the handouts and get quickly bored with the visuals
  • professors or other speakers who have lost the attention of the audience hide behind the act of reading bullet points
  • the presentation is locked into a sequence that is designed by the presenter in advance, and offers no opportunity to move with the dynamic of the group.

All of this is true, but that’s not PowerPoint’s fault. That’s the fault of the presenter for not knowing the tool well enough.

Sørensen’s complaints, and those of the thousands of others can be easily rectified with just a little knowledge. So here are my five suggestions, based on two decades of standup speaking.

1. Ditch the bullet points and the text. Use PowerPoint for title cards and visuals only. In this instance, I agree with the detractors. No-one wants to hear the presenter read what they can all see up there, and besides, reading all your points at once becomes overload. Builds (revealing one bullet point at a time) quickly become tiring – they lost their appeal long ago. Instead, stash the bullet points in the speaker’s notes section where only you can see them. The Presenter View described below is an excellent dashboard visible only on the presenter’s laptop screen, and includes your speaker’s notes. This is like your own personal teleprompter. The audience sees a title card or a visual. You improvise off the bullet points in your speaker’s notes.

2. Ditch the handouts. Handouts are lousy because they give everything away. The audience gets to read ahead. A bored audience uses them to count down towards the end.  They look awful, and worst of all, they constrain you, the speaker, into a pre-set sequence, which as  Sørensen correctly identifies, robs both you and the audience of the creative dynamic that comes from conversation. So don’t give them handouts. Let them take their own notes. That’s a better learning tool anyway. If you don’t give them handouts, the audience will not know how many or how few slides you have, and they won’t feel cheated if you skip a few. If the slides are just title cards then they can write down the title and take their notes accordingly. For visuals, invite the audience to take photos of any great visuals with their own phone.

3. Get Interactive. No-one ever said you had to run your PowerPoint deck in a sequence from first to last. A great presentation should move with the comments or questions from the audience. If the conversation moves towards a point that is best illustrated by an image on slide no.19, and you are currently still on slide no. 2, you should be able to get to slide 19 effortlessly, without slogging quickly through the intervening seventeen. Can you do that? Of course you can. When you use Presenter View, your entire slide collection is laid out in a grid format. It is easy to click on the thumbnail of slide no. 19 and bring it up on screen without anyone knowing that it lives seventeen slides away. If you have a great memory and you know that the slide in question is no.19, you can also call it up by typing the digits 1 and 9 on your keyboard and hitting enter. Basically, this allows you to play your PowerPoint presentation like a piano, calling up slides on command rather than passively cycling through them.

4. Let the visuals help you. People need to look at something other than you. Sorry. Staring at a boring professor is what made students stupid long before PowerPoint took over that task. Today’s learners are used to seeing many visual stimuli. We all live with cellphones attached to our arms. We have to look at something. Besides, an image of a ship is a whole lot more effective than a presenter, with arms stretched out wide, saying, “Imagine this is a ship.” Sorry, that doesn’t work anymore. Visuals are there to enhance your presentation, not eclipse it. Obviously, product illustrations, charts and photographs cannot be done justice with mere words, even by the most erudite of speakers.

beeverBut concepts, too, do better with imagery. I use this image, a piece of excellent artwork by the chalk artist Julian Beever as an illustration in support of managing change. This is not a giant Coke bottle; it is a 3D illustration. Your eyes’ unwillingness to accept it as something other than what they think it is serves as my teaching aid to discuss change resistance. That’s what I mean by visuals helping out.

5. Use the blackout button. PowerPoint does not have to be onscreen all the time. In fact a huge dynamic shift happens when the screen goes intentionally dark. That’s when the focus of the room truly falls upon you the speaker, and it can be used to great effect. Once you need PowerPoint back, simply bring it back. The darken/undarken button is another feature on the Presenter View dashboard that is easy to access and use.

I could go on, talking about the importance of keeping design elements simple, the importance of rehearsing, and keeping to a limited amount of messages, but that has been written about elsewhere. But I have met very few presenters who are actually aware of these five powerful techniques for keeping control of a presentation and allowing to serve as an effective teaching aid.

Presenter-View-500x302The Presenter View that I have been referring to is an option found under the Slide Show menu of PowerPoint 2013, and in earlier versions. It only appears once you have plugged in to a projector and you have started the slideshow. It offers a collection of icon buttons for marking up the slides; revealing the full palette of slides; searching; and blacking out the projection. To the right, where it says “No Notes” is where your speaker’s notes/bullet points show up, if you have stashed them according to point no. 1, above. This Presenter View is only visible to you on your laptop. The audience only sees the currently selected slide.

The Future of Presenting

Another of Sørensen’s complaints that I agree with, is that PowerPoint does not allow any way for students to take their own notes, unless they receive the dreaded handouts in advance. I have been searching for, and even trying to invent my own solution to this problem for years. In essence: how can I send the exact slides that I am showing, across to my students in the sequence that I am presenting them? In other words a custom handout based on what they are seeing? The solution to this seems to be happening finally. A German company called SideFlight seems to offer such a solution, using Wi-Fi and the cloud as the courier. Although I have not yet had a chance to try their product out live, it promises to deposit each slide that you show, onto the screens of every participant in the room, where they can annotate and take notes to their heart’s delight. Once this type of technology takes root, we will be able to dispense with static handouts forever, and will be also able to fully capitalize on a dynamic learning environment, supported by, rather than hindered by PowerPoint.

So, I guess I agree with much of what Sørensen complains about. But I don’t agree that the entire technology should be banned solely because no-one read the manual. This would be a tragic case of killing the messenger, when in my opinion and experience, PowerPoint is actually a great messenger indeed.

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