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Poor usage of Powerpoint does not mean Powerpoint is poor

April 5, 2010

I suppose in the interest of full disclosure I must state that I am a “presentation professional”, that is to say that I work day-in day-out with presentations and improving how they look, feel and communicate.

In recent times I have heard some influential voices calling for presentation software such as PowerPoint to be banned from the college classroom and also banned from academic conferences. The reason? “Too many bullets”, “the person stands there and reads off the bullets right off their slides”, “it is boring, it does not help us as lecturers, it does not help students learn”.

I have had the fortune of attending both college lectures – at one of Ireland’s best universities – and sitting in on a few academic conferences in my time and I have to say that the aforementioned reasons for banning PowerPoint are fairly valid. On the whole the poor usage of Powerpoint in these situations has made for a dire experience and is as close as one can get to actual torture in the classroom. However emphasis here being firmly on the “poor USAGE of PowerPoint”.

I think the problem with people’s view of PowerPoint is that it is only capable of producing bulleted point after bulleted point, while this is encouraged by the interface, this is not the case. Anyone who has taken the time to visit Ted.com, slideshare.net, checked out an “ignite” or “pecha kucha” talk, read “Presentation Zen” or “Slideology”, or read the various blogs out there on the topic would know this surely? The problem is that the vast majority of lecturers do not go to the trouble of doing so, a possible widespread case of “it’s not my job” syndrome. The problem is not Powerpoint, it is the poor usage of the software mixed with an assumption on the behalf of the user that there is no better way to use it.

I do not disagree with the “death by PowerPoint” argument – I just believe that this is essentially a choice made on the behalf of the presenter, and only represents a “way” of using PowerPoint.

Further reading…

Like it or not (and I know plenty who do not), lecturers are in the business of communicating. You might have conducted the best research in the world, have plenty of letters after your name and you might have the greatest knowledge on subject X in Ireland, but if you can’t communicate it to your students… then it’s not worth too much to them.

Lecturers encourage their students to do “further reading”, to take time outside of the classroom to look at other sources of information and think about the course material from every angle so as to gain a better understanding of what is being discussed.

Perhaps students can assume the same of their lecturers when it comes to information delivery methods? Teaching staff should be forced to do further readings on various communications methods and their advantages and disadvantages. On the presentation front, I believe that all lecturers should have a copy of Garr Reynolds’ “Presentation Zen” thrust into their hands on day one and told to “read this and don’t come back to work until you have”. They should be sat down and shown a video of Hans Rosling and his usage of visual aides to tell the story of complex data (I defy anyone to tell me that the talk in question was “boring” or “unhelpful”) and then a Steve Jobs presentation or two to see how minimal visuals with essentially zero bullet points can greatly aide your information.

There is a world of information out there that can help presenters migrate away from the bullets of death. It just needs to be given the time and attention that it deserves.

Lazy, lazy, lazy…

This may not be a popular point among lecturing folk, but it does need to be said.

In a vast percentage of the lecturers I have attended – and it is not a phenomenon restricted to any one university – the lecturers have elected to use the standard issue PowerPoint’s that come with the text book. And my god are they awful. But hey, it is easier than creating your own slides right? At times the lecturer using these slides would seem totally bemused at what popped up on their screen, because they didn’t create the slides and they had no idea what was contained within them… They chose to go the lazy route, use pre-packaged, impersonal slides and not even dedicate the time to go through them before the class. These bullet filled slides were an effective lullaby to send the class to sleep and never failed to do so.

Other lecturers have decided to stick to the tried and tested “stand behind the desk and recite off each bullet point word by word” – again this is a choice on the behalf of the lecturer to deliver the presentation in this manner, it is far from the only way… but is a way…

Some lecturers clearly create their slides so they can function as some sort of “study aide” for students, I suppose this is still laziness, but perhaps a more good meaning variety of laziness. If you want to give out a study aide, open up MS Word and get typing, there is NO such thing as a PowerPoint which can serve as an effective word document and a visual aide.

Building an effective set of slides takes time and effort. Done effectively the process will start offline with a pad of paper and a pen, it involves many stages of distillation and then finally it can move to the slideware. Searching for the right image to backup your point or inform can take a long time… or if you were lazy you could choose some crappy clipart. Constructing an animated chart which helps simplify a complex issue involving data takes a long time to get right… but hey maybe you could flash up that slide that came with the book that is indecipherable instead?

Choosing to go with the tried and tested awful methods of the past is easy, it involves minimal work on the behalf of the presenter and is truly the lazy way out of putting in hard work to create visuals that support and enhance the information that you are presenting.

Conclusion.

PowerPoint is for showing (and supporting), not for telling. It is an aide, there is no point standing in front of a screen reading off bullet after bullet, it does nothing for the students who have to witness it, and furthermore a well prepared lecturer does not need to do this.

There are however times when PowerPoint can help clarify an issue, illustrate a point, display data and create impact with images, this is what it should be used to do. I agree bullet point, “death by PowerPoint” methods do not work, but by saying that PowerPoint is the problem is incorrect and I believe quite harmful because it implies that it is the “only” way to use PowerPoint, rather than a chosen way to use PowerPoint.

The argument for banning PowerPoint implies that there is no better way to use this powerful software than simply dump point after point on the screen, when there quite clearly is. PowerPoint was intended to be a visual “aide”, not the meat and veg of the presentation or class, the meat is the lecturer – the presenter – and their knowledge and opinion of a given subject.

I would implore the smartest people in our society to get smart about how they are using visual aides in their classroom, to spend time, a lot of time, looking at the talks on Ted.com (they don’t always use slides, and that is great, but where they need to display images that tell a story, or communicate complex data is a huge aide which assists the audience in understanding), to read books like Presentation Zen (which challenges preconceptions about what a PowerPoint should look like and how it should be developed), and to read the multitude of blogs on the subject.

Poor usage of PowerPoint is a choice, it is optional, and the practice should not be mistaken for PowerPoint being a poor tool. Banning is not the answer, constant learning, improving and intelligent usage of it is.

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