The highs and lows of PowerPoint

Almost exactly 28 years ago I began work as a full-time university lecturer. That same month, there were some 15 or so other new lecturers starting in the university, and to get us into the mood we were given an induction course. I don’t remember all that much about the course now, but one session was all about the use of ‘overheads’. Back then it was a reference to the use of acetate slides on an overhead projector. To me this always seemed to be a hugely clunky tool – a big machine that tended to make noise and overheat, requiring either pre-prepared slides (and I cannot even remember how the printing on these was undertaken), or using felt pens to write on a roll of transparent sheeting resting on the projector. Most annoyingly of all, it was thought to be good practice to put a piece of paper over those parts of the slide that were not yet to be exposed, and to pull down the sheet gradually to reveal each new bit of wisdom.

In the years that followed I often saw speakers giving a lecture or at conferences struggling with this equipment, including the time when a spectacularly boring speaker at one event knocked over the projector – though it must be said that this rather enlivened an otherwise tedious event. I tried occasionally to use overheads at lectures, but rarely.

And then along came PowerPoint. At first, it was a computerised way of creating slides for overhead projectors (at least for me); and then, gradually,  it became a way of producing an electronic presentation sent directly to a projector. It revolutionised the whole idea of how you could present a topic and make it memorable. And a decade and a half later, PowerPoint, and its competitors, are everywhere.

The problem now is that, all too often, the medium has become the message, and the presentation doesn’t so much illustrate the point as obscure the fact that there isn’t one. So now, often when you go to a particularly interesting event you may find that a selling point is that computerised displays are prohibited.

In fact, PowerPoint can still be a very valuable tool, but it must be used with discretion and intelligence. The standard approach – 26 slides spelling out all the key points, with the presentation printed out for everyone in the audience – increasingly represents bad practice, as it may actually inhibit the intellectual connection between the presenter, the topic and the audience, creating an automated process of very little value. What I try to do now is to use it for the purposes of punctuation rather than summary: to emphasise certain key issues; sometimes even in an interplay between what I say and what I put on screen, with one providing an alternative perspective to the other.

There probably isn’t a ‘right’ way to use PowerPoint, but there are some wrong ways. Most will make better use of it if, for a while, they give it a rest, and reflect on what this particular medium can do best.

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10 Comments on “The highs and lows of PowerPoint”

  1. Ultan Says:

    Unfortunately, we’re all too familiar with the old PowerPoint karaoke that goes on everywhere – in colleges, in offices, on the conference circuit, the same old stuff recycled, devoid of any real message or transfer of information. People should give it a rest for a while.

    Some of use try to move beyond it: http://www.multilingualblog.com/index.php/weblog/first-localization-unconference-a-big-success/

    You might also want to read what the brilliant Tufte says about it: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.09/ppt2.html

  2. Eoin Says:

    I’m sure you’ve seen A slide into mediocrity by Tara Brabazon in the Times Higher.

    PowerPoint is like a guitar. In the hands of a genuis, it’s a wonderful instrument; but there are too many misguided fools out there strumming away, doing badly what everyone else does badly, but believing themselves to be that genius, and the rest of us have to suffer these performances!

  3. J. Ruane Says:

    I am a huge fan of the interplay opportunity with a powerpoint presentation. Stephen Colbert puts it to great comedic effect with his regular series: “The Word”.
    For an example see: http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/171133/june-03-2008/the-word—unhealthy-competition
    I think it is a way in which a speaker can occupy a wider spectrum of attendee’s attention. It affords the audience the chance to hear/see multiple narratives and points of view simultaneously. Also, it could be deemed as increasing the bandwidth for information exchange between speaker and audience. I wonder if I shall ever see anyone successfully run more than one or two such presentation interplays simultaneously?

    As an aside, one of the best presentations I’ve attended was by Stephen Collins at the Science Gallery, where he did not use powerpoint, but rather he played a game of Crysis, on a custom level/world he had created just for the presentation. Bullet points appeared on billboards inside the level, which he subsequently shot down as he navigated through the computer generated 3D world.

  4. Wendymr Says:

    And then there is the other impact of PowerPoint on learning: the student who rushes into the lecture-room, grabs the printed-out presentation and leaves again without hearing the lecture – or simply asks a friend to get it. Emptier lecture-halls, students believing that the content of a topic can be reduced to bullet-points on a set of slides, and essays which become little more than recycling of said bullet-points. Presentations end up detracting from argument and analysis rather than contributing to it.

  5. Scott Says:

    One way in which the tool influences the content: start a new PowerPoint presentation, create your top-level outline or agenda slide, and then just try to summarize one of your subtopics in just two one-line bullet points. Looks too sparse, right? So you root about for more material to make bullets with. Fills out the slide, but does your content no favours.

    I’m impressed by Lawrence Lessig’s style of using PowerPoint:
    http://randomfoo.net/oscon/2002/lessig/free.html

    I think it’s effective because the main stream of the presentation is Lessig’s own speaking, and the PowerPoint underlines and highlights things, makes them visual in a minimalistic way, for emphasis and memorability.

  6. Scott Says:

    My favorite overhead-project moment was during a presentation by one of our company managers, using the type of projector on which one lays individual acetate sheets. As she spoke about what was on one of her transparencies, a breeze from a doorway began to blow the transparency off the machine. Rather than try to catch the transparency, she ran up to the screen, attempting to “catch” the projected image before it slid off the screen. A hilarious, “typically Susan” moment for those of us who knew her.

    And the gradual-revelation technique of laying a piece of paper over the transparency seemed like such a distraction, as the audience was either trying to read the bit that isn’t quite covered or eagerly anticipating the revelation of the next item.

  7. John Flood Says:

    I was going to mention Edward Tufte’s warnings on PowerPoint, but since I’m beaten to that, here is a link to comedian Don MacMillan’s wonderful analysis of PowerPoint egregiousness: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cagxPlVqrtM

  8. Ultan Says:

    On a related note of comparing performances, I attended Mashup Camp (www.mashupcamp) in Dublin last November. The AOL rep used the PowerPoint slides visually, not speaking at all, not only for his main presentation but reinforced the point about how awful the medium is by also using it for the Q+A session afterwards. He had prepared a huge slide deck of single words and in response to any verbal question from the audience would quickly shuffle a series of suitable slides on screen as an answer: “That-Feature-Is-In-2.0,” “Glad-you-asked-that,” etc…


  9. I was asked to give an unplugged talk (i.e. no overheads or powerpoint) on the CERN experiment to our physics staff and students last week
    (see http://coraifeartaigh.wordpress.com)
    It was very liberating to tell the story with nothing but marker and whiteboard. That said, it was definitely more demanding concentration-wise. Also, I found I ran over time, which I never do with pp. Swings and roundabouts, I guess.
    P.S. Another disadvantage – a few people have asked me for a hardcopy of the talk – of course I don’t have one!

  10. TheChrisD Says:

    I too have to stress the importance of watching Don MacMillan’s video. It highlights some very key points that need to be followed when using Powerpoint.


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