Sunday, January 30, 2005

PowerPoint in perspective

PowerPoint is audience-abusive, presenter-addictive, and information-transfer sclerotic. But with a little determination, it is possible to stop it from calling the shots and take back control of your communication.

There is no end to the supercilious put-downs of the tool that roll of the tongues of those who know better. “Death by PowerPoint” is no longer funny, but we all use it to show how much smarter we as audience members are than those making an effort to communicate their message from the front of the room. Yet the same people who sit in meeting rooms and sigh inwardly as another bullet point whizzes in from stage right, will themselves inflict similar discomfort when called upon to present.

Not all trainers are detractors. There are many PowerPoint apologists who will tell you that it is a perfectly good tool, and that the fault lies with the way people use it. Not true. It is a tool that is often quite inappropriate for the task, yet our norms and expectations dictate that we use it anyway.

PowerPoint leads you to communicate in a slide-show or lecture mode. It imposes a sage on stage relationship between the audience and the presenter, and it makes the content as manifested way too central in the process. Content is of course important, but PowerPoint forces an abstracted sequentialism on content that often makes it incoherent. The presentation typically becomes the communication, instead of merely supporting it. Dressing it up with animated transitions and pointless clip-art will not stop the haemorrhaging of audience attention. The worst offence of PowerPoint is that it often serves as the velvet curtain behind which the Wizard of Oz presenter hides his/her own lack of substance.

If you have to use PowerPoint, what can you do to make the best of it? Assuming that basic legibility issues and presentation skills are already in hand, here are ten tips in, er, bullet point format:
1. Understand your strategic objective and structure your communication so that it gets you there. If you are trying to teach, use appropriate communication processes and don’t let “your presentation” become a substitute for a proper learning experience.

2. Only use PowerPoint slides for those parts where it makes the communication clearer or more efficient. If you can’t communicate your message verbally without a PowerPoint prop, perhaps you have nothing worthwhile to say. Don’t feel compelled to have a slide for everything you are going to say, and use blank slides liberally as spacers that bring focus back to you or to your audience.

3. Don’t use PowerPoint as a pacemaker. If your presentation design interferes with the right pace of communication, rethink it.

4. Design to express ideas, not merely to summarize. A bullet list is often the last refuge of the poorly prepared.

5. The time and attention of your audience is a scarce commodity – respect it. Self-indulgence seems to be encouraged by PowerPoint, and results in tedium and time pressure.

6. Choose the visual media that bring most clarity to any item. Numbers are often more effective than text or graphics, still images can sometimes do more than busy animations. For a real-time electronic whiteboard, plug in a cheap graphics tablet and write on your PowerPoint slides.

7. Don’t be afraid to crowd a slide where appropriate. An individual item often needs the context of other items to be meaningful, and a linear revelation may not be the most effective way to go.

8. Keep it simple and elegant. Your slides should support what and how you are communicating, not dominate it.

9. Stay flexible. For important events such as conferences, I usually have two versions of my presentation (one high-res full-color, one lower-res 16 color) because you never know what limitations the projector may have. If I am presenting as part of a panel, I prepare the full presentation and a stripped-down version in case someone steals all my time. And I make sure I can talk comfortably without any aids at all if necessary.

10. Respect your audience’s need for a record of the presentation, but don’t take that need literally. Even the most text-heavy PowerPoint slideshow is usually an incoherent representation of what you actually had to say. Instead, take the time to write a paper, including any relevant illustrations from your presentation.

In skilled hands PowerPoint can be quite effective even when it forces a sub-optimal mode on the communication. But “presenting” is rarely what we should be doing. Training, selling, persuading, inspiring, or informing all require different communication modes, processes, and media. Why do presenters and audiences have an unquestioning expectation that they will meet their objectives with a slideshow? Sometimes technology becomes an end in itself, and PowerPoint has achieved that status. The medium has become more important than the message.

You are often better off simply turning off the projector and talking with your audience. If you need to illustrate your talk, try using a less linear tool, such as HTML or Flash. But there is not a lot you cannot do, very effectively, with a whiteboard or a flipchart.


Originally in TrainingZONE's Parkin Space column of Jan 14 2005.

2 comments:

Harold Jarche said...

When using .ppt, remember dual coding theory (http://tip.psychology.org/paivio.html). Basically, you should use graphics and other visual aids to reinforce your words (verbal input). Do NOT use bulleted lists of words, as these do not reinforce spoken words. Reading and listening use the same part of the brain. Listening and looking at pictures engage both parts of the brain.

This is my simple rule of thumb when I develop powerpoint presentations.

Will Thalheimer said...

PowerPoint is a tool that is often used poorly, but it can be used well. It is not helpful to blame the tool. If you're going to blame the tool, at least you could do is offer suggestions for an improved tool or a different better tool.

Are you willing to throw away your computer because it sometimes crashes or sometimes you lose data?

One more thing, the statement that we should rarely be presenting seems a bit of an overkill to me. Sure, many of us would do better with a more participatory style, but sometimes visuals are very critical or in-depth analysis from an expert, and a participatory style isn't right for these.

And Harold's comment on Paivio's theory is a bit off the mark I think. I'm pretty sure there is research that shows there is a benefit when spoken words and visually-presented words are consistent. It's a bit more complicated that Harold suggested.