PowerPoint Peeves

13 July 2006 at 3:40 pm 13 comments

| Peter Klein |

The increasingly ubiquitous PowerPoint has its uses, to be sure, but is no substitute for clear thinking and clear writing, the keys to any decent presentation. Rants and raves: Guy Kawasaki suggests the 10/20/30 rule — no more than ten slides, no more than twenty minutes, and at least a 30pt. font. Gordon Smith hates slides full of text. My own pet peeves include distracting backgrounds and typefaces, inconsistent punctuation and tense, and the obligatory “roadmap” slide (“This presentation, like every other one you’ll see at the conference, goes like this: introduction, literature review, hypotheses, data, results, conclusions. How many minutes do I have left?”). And, of course, not every idea is best communicated through slides (you’ve all probably seen the PowerPoint version of the Gettysburg Address).

Fred Tung objects to people using PowerPoint as a teleprompter, populating their slides with complete sentences then reading them word-for-word. I couldn’t agree more. Then again, in some disciplines, particularly in the humanities, “presenting a paper” has always meant simply reading a prepared text. My father was an academic historian, and I was shocked the first time I accompanied him to a professional meeting at which each panelist merely read his paper aloud. (I understand this is common in philosophy as well; I don’t know about other fields.)

Reading a paper aloud has never made sense to me. Wouldn’t it make more sense simply to hand out the paper and let participants read it on their own?

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Ephemera, Teaching.

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13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Tim Swanson  |  13 July 2006 at 4:21 pm

    Whenever I give PPT presentations I try to insert a funny picture in each slide (usually something from The Simpsons or Southpark) and keep the text to a minimum. I then use notecards that simply have some keywords that I’ll discuss about each slide. I think it’s an insult to everyone in the room to merely read it — why not just print it out and let people read it on their own or beforehand?

  • 2. JC  |  13 July 2006 at 9:01 pm

    Here we go again, thinking, as most Americans do, that we need an ever better technological fix to resolve our difficulties. How many of you have been suckered into spending the $100 or so you need for Ovation, that well-advertised ppt enhancer?

    It is not about the technology, guys. It is about how to communicate. Do you imagine Lincoln need ppt at Gettysburg? Would he have been more effective using it? Think of Churchill’s speeches. Some of you may be aware of how hard he worked on seeming spontaneous, how often he rehearsed to Clementine.

    Some of you may know I have opted henceforth to avoid ppt presentations. Since I do not have the gift of the gab, as the Irish say, I end up with the worst option, to prepare and read a speech in the manner of the old German professors. Ugh! But it’s true.

    Doing this for the last 12 months has helped me appreciate some things about our work. First, preparing a to-be-read speech takes immensely more effort and time than preparing a ppt show. Even though I am often up until 2 am before my presentation that same day, this preparation investment generally pays off. All experienced teachers know that preparation is the principal determinant of their success. Talent is something but effort is more.

    Second, I realize ppts are perfect for people who do no thinking – no, I did not say who cannot think. I mean people who can suspend their thinking in something like a state of non-flow. My problem, or at least one of my many problems, is that I cannot stop thinkiing while I am doing a presentation. On the contrary, I really get into it and find it immensely stimulating, intellectually. The result is that I move on from the thoughts I had while I was preparing the presentation. That sounds reasonable enough but the impact on the audience of the widening gap between what they see and what they hear is catastrophic. The fancier the technology the worse it gets. I have explored dynamic imaging and software other than Powerpoint. The result is even worse.

    It is very useful to look at Gore’s performance as he does the presentation at the core of the new film “An Inconvenient Truth”. I commend this film for many reasons, not least because it is an object lesson for us teachers. Gore’s technique is masterly. It is a wonderful illustration of the proper use of visual aids, combining a delicately flighted non-aggressive manner with some incredibly aggressive material. But he also mentions that he has given this same presentation more than a thousand times, and you see him still working on improving it.

    He says giving the lecture has helped him appreciate that his primary task is to work out why his audience does not ‘get it’. So he works hard to surface the problems his audience is having and treats these as barriers that he must remove, for them. How many of us think this way? How many of us ever give a presentation more than once?

    Overall I think visual aids are for those who have already invested hugely in their material. They are absolutely not for those who are still working out what they want to say – as mine always were.

    That said, pressure of time last week forced me to whack together a ppt presentation for a group of executives. They were polite, but alas not many ‘got it’.

  • 3. Nicolai Foss  |  14 July 2006 at 5:37 am

    I have to side with JC on these issues. I think that occassionally reading a paper makes a lot of sense. One of the best presentations I have ever heard was Ronald Coase literally reading a paper at the inaugural conference for the International Society of New Institutional Economics in 1997 (St. Louis). JC himself gave a keynote here at CBS last year which was excellent — but wholly read from a paper. I think the bottomline is that there are certain situations where to read a paper is entirely appropriate (do you expect sermons to be delivered with PPT slides? ;-)). However, only some people can do it right.

  • 4. Peter Klein  |  14 July 2006 at 12:11 pm

    I agree that reading a prepared text can be appropriate in some situations (e.g., a keynote address). And some people are such good speakers that you enjoy simply listening to them talk. But in those cases you shouldn’t also distribute the full text of the speech, which is what a speaker is essentially doing by putting up PPT slides and then reading them word for word.

    BTW, one of the strangest presentations I ever witnessed was by John Nash at a meeting of the Southern Economic Association a few years ago (forget the location), giving a talk on (of all things) monetary theory. Nash put up a series of transparencies, containing the full text of his address, and read through them, never once making eye contact with the audience, never adding an extemporaneous remark, etc. The whole thing was a bit surreal.

  • 5. Eric H  |  14 July 2006 at 6:13 pm

    I assume everyone has seen this:


    Read a paper? Okay. Not thrilling, but okay. Make a PP presentation, okay. Read a PP presentation out loud? Absolutely not.

    The basic problem is that few people are able to deliver a prepared paper word for word and make it as thrilling as a Churchill speach. God knows our president can’t do it, and he gets a heck of a lot more practice (and advice) than most.

  • 6. JC  |  15 July 2006 at 6:21 am

    This sounds too much like ‘out with everything’. We still have to try and communicate with those sitting in front of us. That’s the technologicaly-penetrated and -proscribed situation in which we find ourselves.

    What do you all think works well? What recommendation would you make to a young faculty member?

    When I got my first teaching job I went through a short training program that included being filmed at the blackboard. It was a desperate experience as I fumbled, gulped, and twitched nervously in front of the camera (there were no students present). I hope things have improved a tad since.

    But as I look back on what I have enjoyed listening to it seems the material itself is key rather than the technique of its delivery, which is more often memorable for how it got in the way.

    At the same time I have concluded that what one remembers of a speech – as opposed to an academic event – is what one feels (in one’s 2nd brain?) about the person delivering the speech.

    I will forbear mentioning our President, but listenng to some of the finer orators of the past it seems it is all about feeling and almost nothing of the specifics of what is said.

  • 7. Bo Nielsen  |  17 July 2006 at 4:09 am

    Very interesting discussion – I myself use PPT often but constantly find myself (like JC) thinking during the speech and thus altering the delivery to the point where students often cannot follow my slides – alas – I have learned to put only a few key words on the slides to tricker my thoughts and then the game for me is to elaborate on these few key words – it often makes for a lively yet at times a bit disconnected lecture…

    I was thinking about the power of visual aids – I really think they have great value but only in certain circumstances – can you imagine General Powell “convincing” the UN Security Council about the threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq without those blurred images of what he decided was evidence? Reading from his notes alone would not do the trick.

    I think reading from a manuscript (or a paper) can be useful – but not as teaching tool! If you are at an academic conference or talking infront of a group of “experts” then maybe – but one of the main problems for “experts” and professors is exactly that they cannot deliver the message so that “normal” students (undergraduate or graduate) can understand and use them…..I suspect JC is talking more about giving speeches to experts and/or executives and actual TEACHING.

    Teaching is an art – those of us lucky enough to work (or have worked) at strong teaching institutions and learn from the “best” in the field have learned many tricks – reading from a manuscript is not one of them….

  • 8. Peter Klein  |  18 July 2006 at 12:10 pm

    A correspondent points out that best practices for presentations may have a culturally specific component. Non-native-English speakers often prefer full sentences, read by the presenter, rather than bullet points. Asian audiences tend to like “roadmap” slides, presented before and after each section, so items can be checked off as they’re covered. And “culture” may refer not only to nationality, but also to profession — engineers tend to prefer more detailed slides, for example.

  • 9. AJE  |  6 December 2006 at 6:06 pm

    Not sure if this came up, but there’s a distinction between presenting and teaching. My teaching slides are often heavy on text because I want students to have copies of quotations.

    Public oratory is indeed a rare skill, and I often prefer an evening at an LSE public lecture (Tim Garton Ash for example) than going to the theatre!

  • 10. Marcin Tustin  |  5 April 2007 at 4:16 am

    There are people who insist that good slides should be entirely made of text. I insist that they’re idiots.

  • 11. jcm  |  6 April 2007 at 10:34 am

    “Reading a paper aloud has never made sense to me. Wouldn’t it make more sense simply to hand out the paper and let participants read it on their own?”

    Because it allows you to travel around the world to read the paper

  • 12. REW  |  8 April 2007 at 9:04 pm

    This thread leads one to the obvious (trivial?) result that the use of ppt slides, reading prepared text, Socratic method, and other forms of presentation is contingent upon a) the speaker’s attributes, b) audience preparation and motivation, c) the subject, and d) the situation/venue.

    The best speakers I have known — ones who are equally adroit in the classroom, at professional conferences, and giving a keynote — follow the design of extemporaneous speaking.

    My favorite “surprising presentation” was a well-attended, well-advertised lecture on campus by Douglas Hofstadter, author of Godel, Escher, Bach, who spoke on analogy as the core of cognition. He spoke for an hour and a half standing at the front of the theatre by an overhead projector and a stack of primitive visuals (I think even Jay Barney would have noted their rusticity). Much learning occurred because Hofstadter’s thinking was opened up to the audience. The visuals made the occasion seem more intimate.

  • 13. Chihmao Hsieh  |  8 April 2007 at 11:43 pm

    Personally, I tend to associate a phrase (not a full sentence) per main bullet, where each phrase associates with a ‘claim.’

    My sub-bullets tend to indicate ‘reasons’ (for the claim), and are also made up of short phrases. If evidence supporting a reason is based strictly on logic, then I usually omit the logic on the slides and relying on clear oration. If the evidence is based on statistics, I usually put up most of the important numbers and variables (usu. on tables in ppt).

    Incidentally, it hadn’t dawned on me before to comment on this topic from a more scientific learner-oriented perspective, since everybody has a presentation style that works for them. But one area of cognitive and educational psychology that informs this discussion best is referred to as ‘cognitive load theory.’ Even though the theory itself still seems to have one or two major gaps, it is very intuitive and its main proponent writes in a very readable style (I suppose that would only make sense!).

    Decent bibliography section at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_load

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