Posted tagged ‘overhead projectors’

The highs and lows of PowerPoint

September 24, 2008

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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