My PowerPoint rule of thumb

It’s the age of criticizing PowerPoint, and everybody’s doing it. Last November I wrote a wildly popular post on why I have trouble learning from Powerpoint presentations in college classes. This week, the New York Times published an article dramatizing the problem, writing how Powerpoint is hurting the United States’ war in Iraq. Officers’ time is too tied up in making bullet-pointed storyboards, to the extent that some of them spend more time on Powerpoint than anything else. I think the NYT chose the example of armed forces to make this story especially dramatic, and it goes a little over the top. The article even mentions that Obama was briefed with PowerPoint slides in last fall’s Afghan Strategy Review, as if to say that because the President sees it, PowerPoint is a scourge that has penetrated our deepest levels of government. Still, the article says out loud what many of us are afraid to: everyone is bored by Powerpoint presentations, and yet everyone expects them to be used.

I try to avoid the cursed Office product as much as possible. Sadly, a few of my professors actually require Powerpoint decks for class presentations. Having pity on my classmates, I try to make my presentations as interesting as possible. I have a rule of thumb, and it goes like this: when I consider what I need to include in each slide, I ask myself, if I were making this presentation without the aid of a projector, which visuals would I print out in hard copy because they’re that necessary to understanding the topic? These images, along with a caption or two, are the only things I’ll allow in my slide decks. If it’s not worth spending money to print out, it’s not worth wasting my audience’s time on. If there is something important to say, I think the best thing to do is just say it, and reserve the projector for images that aid understanding.

I think most people do not understand that their slide decks do not have to stand on their own. Instead, they copy half their speech into their slide deck, as though hearing it and reading it at the same time will increase the audience’s attention. This not only takes up more of the audience’s time, but the speaker also wastes more time making the presentation, as the officers quoted in the NYT article did. I think we’d save a lot of time in meetings if people would learn to just say what they wanted to say, instead of writing a storyboard about it.

  • http://poly-rhythms.blogspot.com/ F.A.R.

    One thing I loved about the NYT article is that the quoted officers mentioned how linear slide-based presentations are, which can really kill a subject matter. One possible solution to that problem is http://prezi.com/, a website I’ve seen used in two of my classes this semester. It allows presentations in the cloud, for one thing, but it also has an interface that’s not slide based but instead takes advantage of the freedom and flexibility that computers affords us. Visually, it’s much more engaging, especially because it can more easily escape the linearity of a slideshow. That helps keep people awake and make the presentation potentially more useful. Of course, the old problems are still possible: too much text, or too much irrelevant content, can still clog up a Prezi performance. It’s FUN, though, something slideshows haven’t been since middle school.

  • http://perpetualstudent.net/blog Mickey

    Are you familiar with Prezi? My boss likes it, and I like it for its innovative style and the way it treats presentations as skimming over a large image or set of images instead of as a plain slide show that people just dump text onto.

  • http://perpetualstudent.net/blog Mickey

    Gahhh, I’m a moron, that’s what I get for typing out comments and submitting them without refreshing the page first… sorry, Foster. :-P

  • http://www.dobox.com/ Bruce

    Are you familiar with Prezi? My boss likes it, and I like it for its innovative style and the way it treats presentations as skimming over a large image or set of images instead of as a plain slide show that people just dump text onto.

  • http://www.coolearplugs.com Coy Ellerson

    for the poster above. Did you not read the actualy post and comments? I cannot see how you came to that conclusion