I should note at the outset that I am guilty of nearly everything I am about to discuss. I suspect that just about all of use have used PowerPoint incorrectly at one point or another, but here I am going to list a few common problems that we engage in or issues we confront.
1. Content is king. This is important because all too often we believe that selecting the right design is important. As Edward Tufte (1) says “If your words or images are not on point, making them dance in color won’t make them relevant.” The entire point of this technology is to communicate information. While design can be used to help do just that, it is the content that fundamentally matters.
2. PowerPoint is not a word processing program. I am surprised to see how frequently presenters continue to pack their slides dense with text. It is certainly common to attend presentations where the speaker simply reads back the words which are projected on the slide. In all honestly, I’ve done that, out of nervousness I might forget something important I felt I needed to say. Of course, I forget that the audience does not know what the important things are that I am going to say, so that if I forget it, they will never know. Slides should be used as a trigger for what you wish to communicate, and the fewer words you use to that extent, the better. Truth is, as well, that if you are going to stand up there and read the slides, I can read them faster than you can speak them so you might as well just print them out and let me go on my way and read them at my leisure.
3. Pictures convey far more meaning than words. In material I have read about PowerPoint, this case has been made very forcefully. The author of an article showing good and bad slides, for example, shows a typical PowerPoint slide, with title, bullet points, sub-bullet points, etc. It’s boring. And then the author shows a pictorial slide used to demonstrate the same ideas made in the first slide. And it is far more powerful and communicates concepts better. The best PowerPoint presentations I have ever seen, such as those by the chiropractic researcher Greg Kawchuk, insert off-kilter graphics and even videoclips to use as support for the real educational issues being discussed. I doubt you can actually remember what you think is the best PowerPoint presentation you have ever seen, but I also bet anyone at the ACC-RAC Conference a few years ago can recall Dr. Kawchuk’s video that included a clip of chiropractic researchers emulating the controversy at the Olympics ice-skating competition. That’s the mark of a creative and effective presentation.
4. Practice your presentation. It helps you figure out your transitions, how much time you need, what you wish to say, and it also allows you to run through your presentation and determine whether you need to revise it. Don’t present information cold. You are presenting a logical flow with your slides, and linking them together is important.
PowerPoint is an amazing tool that is rarely used as effectively as possible. There are many instruction books out there that will show you how to make slides, but fewer about how to think about your presentation. One good one I recommend is: Reynolds G. Presentation Zen. Berkeley, CA: New Riders, 2008.
1. Tufte E. PowerPoint is evil. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.09/ppt2.html, accessed June 2, 2008