Avoiding the PowerPoint Blues

Posted on August 18, 2011 by

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When the topic of PowerPoint comes up in my discussions with faculty, I often get to hear some very amusing stories. Somewhat surprisingly (or maybe not), most of them involve other faculty members – not students – presenting at workshops or conferences. The usual suspects, in terms of PowerPoint foibles, are repeated again and again: speaking to the slide show instead of the audience; creating slides that are too busy, confusing, or with text too small to read; and misuse or overuse of animation, sound effects and other “gimmicks” that quickly become distracting.

While our students might not be the main offenders in these tales of presentations gone wrong, instructors often ask me to speak to their classes about the best ways to use PowerPoint when giving technology-assisted oral presentations. I’ve come up with a few basic tips that you might consider passing along to your students – or to a colleague!

1. Use PowerPoint to enhance your presentation – not take the place of it! For most academic assignments (but not all), PowerPoint should be considered no more than a visual aid, adding visual elements to emphasize points or make certain ideas clearer to your audience through pictures, graphs, bullet points, and even video. It can be a very effective supplement to your presentation, and it can even be deeply integrated into how you present, but your slide show should serve your delivery of the presentation, not the other way around.

Bad PowerPoint Example

2. Keep it brief and clear. Slide shows should be designed so that audience members in the back row can see and read every item on every slide. Consequently, slides should not be crammed with information: it is the speaker’s responsibility to elaborate on the ideas that are being emphasized by the graphics or text on the slides.

3. Show your face, not your back. Nothing frustrates and bores audiences more (except maybe number 4) than speakers who spend the bulk of their presentations reading aloud from the slides. The audience should be engaged with gestures, movement and, yes, eye contact the same as they would if the slides were not there.

4. To handout or not to handout – that is the question! This is a touchy subject, since it is very commonly done, but I’ve heard numerous instructors and conference attendees complain about speakers who give their audience handouts of their entire slide show before giving the presentation. While there may be some advantages to this, it takes away from the audience’s focus (and the effectiveness of the presentation) by tempting them to read ahead and not listen to the speaker. My advice is to offer handouts after the presentation, not before, if you plan on making them available.