Friday, July 23, 2010

Effective PowerPoint Presentations

by Susan Codone

PowerPoint, and other presentation tools like it, is either the blessing or bane of most professors' daily work.  As a tool to project content, it has often been misused by presenters in a hurry or too uninformed of its features to use it properly.  On the other hand, it can be very successful when used well.  PowerPoint has its detractors, though.  Every article that I reviewed for this blog posting referenced Edward Tufte's 2003 article on the Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, and talked about his great dislike for bullet points, linear presentations, and simplistic presentations.  Tufte even called PowerPoint "content vacuous".  

There are other PowerPoint detractors in addition to Tufte.  David Brier and Kaye Vickery, in a 2009 articled titled "Perception and Use of PowerPoint at Library Instruction Conferences" (References & User Services Quarterly) listed their 5 top characteristics of bad PowerPoint presentations:

1. Speaker reads slides to audience
2. Overuse of text on slide
3. Slides use full sentences and paragraphs instead of bullet points
4. Text is too small to be read
5. Slides are hard to see because of color choices

Many of us have sat through PowerPoint presentations that were difficult to endure, for these reasons and many more.  But PowerPoint, used well, can be quite effective in transmitting important content to listeners.  Patricia Nemec and Anne Sullivan Soydan, in the 2008 Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal (The Medium Isn't the Message), write that PowerPoint has two main functions.  First, it is a visual aide supplemented by a spoken lecture, and second, it is a set of trainer notes that are a useful organizer and pacing tool.  Not only is PowerPoint good as a tool for presenters, it also can help listeners learn and remember better. Jo Mackiewicz, in her 2009 article Comparing PowerPoint Experts' and University Students' Opinions About PowerPoint Presentations (Journal of Technical Writing and Communication), associates Dual Coding Theory with PowerPoint, saying that PowerPoint is uniquely positioned to offer both verbal and visual content, thus activating both processing systems and enhancing memory.

So if PowerPoint can be used well, how can we become better designers and presenters?  One of the greatest minds on the correct use of PowerPoint is Jean-Luc Doumont.  In his 2009 book, Trees, Maps, and Theorems: Effective Communication for Rational Minds, he spells out clearly how to design and present excellent PowerPoint presentations.  I will borrow liberally from his work as I explain how to both design and organize slides and deliver presentations.

Good PowerPoint Slide Organization

Jean Luc Doumont says that presentations should answer five questions -- what, when, why, who, and where.  With a focus on the audience, presenters should be concentrating on what the listeners will be able to do after attending the presentation, not on the next slide.

Doumont recommends this slide organization -- title, attention- getter, preview slide, content, transition, content, conclusion, questions.  The title slide should do just that -- state the title and author's name.  Quickly following, the attention-getter slide is the one that really makes the very first impression on listeners and, obviously, gets their attention. Using a statement, question, anecdote, analogy, or visual, Doumont says that it also serves as an advance organizer, telling the listeners quickly what to expect from the presentation topic and getting them ready to learn.  

The preview slide is very important; this contains the "table of contents" or outline of the presentation.  This tells listeners how long the presentation will be and how many sections it will include.  The preview slide can also be used again as a transition slide throughout the presentation; whenever a new section is begun, show the preview slide with the completed sections grayed out.  This offers listeners a visual indicator of progress and tells them what is left in the presentation.  

The conclusion slide should concisely sum up the presentation, and the questions slide need not say "Questions" -- it could just contain an organizational logo, or some other symbol, and the presenter can just ask for questions.

Effective Slide Design

Doumont correctly says that poorly-designed slides reflect upon the speaker and compete with the speaker for the audience's attention.  Many times we place too much text on the slide, and then the listener cannot both read and listen to the text read out loud at the same time (Dual Coding again -- confusion of processing systems.)  Doumont says that if you aren't going to mention it, don't put it on your slide.  He says speakers make three common mistakes:

1.  Creating slides for themselves as memory aides with often cryptic text
2.  Making slides to double as a written report
3.  Copying text to slides without adapting it to slide format

Doumont says to include text, but a small amount, accompanied by a visual on each slide.  Write in a complete sentence and consider not using bullets, but tabs.  Illustrate your message as visually as possible, limiting the text used.  Use a light background with dark text -- projectors are stronger now and room lights are usually kept on.  Text should be in a sans serif font, with one typeface and only a few sizes.  Color should be used very sparingly.  Resist animations; they distract listeners from your message.

Presenting Slides

Doumont says that opening sentences like "Hello My Name Is" or "I am going to talk about fail to appeal to the audience because they lack a compelling purpose and are not motivating.  Instead, he says to start with a rationale and tell listeners immediately about the purpose of the presentation.  He says that listeners want to know why they should listen at all, and thus we should tell them -- and that we should talk about the topic (The system has three advantages...), and not about the speaker (I will present three advantages...).

Doumont recommends standing either to the left or right of the screen, whatever works with your right or left hand or how you have to advance the slides.  SpeakerFace the audience with shoulders, hips, and feet, and point to the slide with the hand closest to the screen. Project your voice to the back of the room, and elaborate on the slide, never reading the text to listeners who can read it themselves.  Maintain eye contact with listeners as you speak.  This means you should know your presentation material well enough that you don't have to look each time you make a slide transition -- slides should not be used as visual prompts.  When you make a transition to a new section, use the preview slide, but don't read it; let it visually tell the listener what's been done and what's next.  At the closing, sum up the presentation both visually and verbally, and then you're ready for questions.


PowerPoint is like many tools -- it is what you make of it.  By following these guidelines, you can make a credible, successful presentation that will be listened to and remembered.  You don't have to be an advanced PowerPoint user to use it well -- just one who follows good, solid guidelines and who cares more about what the listeners should get from the presentation than just getting through all the slides.


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