Friday, April 20, 2007

In defence of PowerPoint

Only two contributions seemed to meet with widespread audience approval at last month's MediaGuardian Changing Media Summit. One was Lord Puttnam voicing his concern over the educational deficiencies / moral vacuity of video games (somebody buy that peer a copy of Everything Bad Is Good For You); the other was Emily Bell's promise that the day would be "practically PowerPoint free". Whilst only the former elicited a round of spontaneous applause, the latter certainly prompted a sigh of relief from a roomful of seasoned conference attendees.

What struck me about the audience reaction to these two contributions is just how easy it is to fall into the trap of blaming the medium for the message. Neither games consoles nor Microsoft PowerPoint should be held responsible for the proliferation of poor quality content. They are simply two forms of media which (like the the printing press, the television, the Internet and, for that matter, all other forms of media) can be used to create products of wildly varying quality.

On the basis that video games aren't short of articulate defenders, I will focus on the not inconsiderable challenge of speaking up for PowerPoint, for which the knives appear to be well and truly out. It's been bubbling along under the surface for a long time (see Wired's 2003 polemic PowerPoint is Evil) but the PowerPoint backlash is now in full swing. You could of course argue that the products of a multi-billion dollar software giant neither need nor deserve to be defended but I'm a firm believer in everyone receiving a fair trial (or maybe it's just a perverse desire to defend the indefensible).

The nub of my argument is that bad PowerPoint presentations are the fault of the creator and/or presenter not the software. Put simply, most of us don't know how to use PowerPoint effectively. One of the most elementary errors is replicating the content of the verbal presentation in textual form (usually as bullet points but sometimes, dear God, in full). This was highlighted by a recent piece on The Register, Official: PowerPoint bad for brains, which reported the findings of a team of Australian researchers that the human brain is ill-equipped to process the same information presented verbally and visually at the same time. What is extraordinary is that, like much research, we already know this (by virtue of having sat through such tedious presentations ourselves) and yet show little sign of implementing that knowledge.

Of course, reading out your slides is just one of a litany of common PowerPoint misdemeanours, which include wildly inappropriate use of clip art, illegible font sizes and gratuitous animation to name but three. So, what's to be done? A few years back I ran a training session at work called 'How To Sex Up Your PowerPoint' which included some tips for avoiding death by PowerPoint. Below are my '8 golden rules'. It's notable that they are mostly just common sense (PowerPoint seems to engender a curious leave-taking of senses amongst even the most intelligent of presenters). So without further ado...

The 8 Golden Rules of PowerPoint

1. Plan your presentation before opening PowerPoint

The first thing most people do when they hear they have a presentation to give (after the weeks of procrastinating), is to fire up PowerPoint and start knocking out some slides. This tends to result in 84-slide presentations without any discernible structure. Force yourself to write down answers to these two questions:

- What is your objective for the presentation?
- What key messages do you want your audience to take away? (ideally 3, but definitely no more than 7 as people can only hold 7 things in their brain at once)

It might seem ridiculous but you'd be surprised how often you get half way through creating a PowerPoint presentation and forget what you're trying to achieve with it.

2. Exploit your colleagues

Not in a general sense of course, but when it comes to sourcing images, audio, video or facts and figures don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you've taken the time to plan the presentation you'll know roughly what assets you're going to need and can fire off a few emails asking people for their help in finding them well before the presentation is due. Don’t be afraid of reusing slides or assets (yours or other peoples). If someone has already made a slide which illustrate your point, don’t reinvent the wheel. It’s easy to feel that PowerPoint presentations are like wedding outfits – you have to have an entirely new one for every occasion. You don’t – at the very least you can wear those shoes again. That said, you mustn’t forget Rule number 3…

3. Be ruthless

From when you are first planning the presentation to when you do your final run through, ask yourself "does this slide enhance my point?“. If it doesn't, change it so it does or get rid of it all together. Visuals can be distracting, especially when the alternative is listening to someone talk, so don't use them for their own sake or because it took you ages to build. Chances are they’ll come in handy later on.

4. Be consistent

There are few things more disconcerting in a PowerPoint presentation than fonts which change size, colour and location for no particular reason. Keep your headings the same size and in the same place. The easiest way of doing this is to copy and paste a slide and change the text. If you have a series of screengrabs, keep them the same size and in the same place. Using templates can also help consistency as can the Slide Master.

5. Keep it simple

Chances are you will know a great deal more than your audience about the subject on which you're presenting and its easy to misjudge the amount of knowledge you are assuming or the amount of geek-speak. A very complex presentation can actually be more boring than a simple one. Visually, try to use a little text as possible on the slides and avoid using text smaller than 28-point as your audience won't be able to read it. Don't be afraid of continuing a series of bullet points over two slides (assuming you've already edited them down as far as possible). If the second greatest PowerPoint crime is reading out verbatim text to an audience then the greatest is pointless animation. Try and avoid using animation unless it illustrates your point. We've all sat through presentations where all you can focus on is the hideous slide wipes.

6. Illustrate your points

They say a picture paints a thousand words and they may just be right. An image can make a point more simply and more effectively and be more memorable. However visuals can also be distracting so be sure to apply Rule 3 (Be Ruthless) to your use of images. Also consider using audio or video - a well chosen piece of media can be very powerful. Also, it breaks the monotony of one person talking. Try to use examples which will resonate with your audience, which brings me onto Rule 7…

7. Talk to your audience

Be sure to tailor your presentation to your audience. It’s easy to reach for an off-the-shelf presentation that you’ve used before but your audience will usually be able to tell. Of course, it’s not only what you say but also how you deliver it. Try to talk to your audience not your PowerPoint. It may feel a bit weird at first. Use prompt cards if necessary. If you are going to give out handouts, do so at the end.

8. Rules are there to be broken

The final golden rule of PowerPoint is that rules are there to be broken. Having said earlier on that a presentation should only aim to convey no more than 7 messages, I’ve just tried to give you 8. So, I guess they’re more like guidelines than rules, but 'golden guidelines' doesn’t have the same ring to it…

Postscript: In an attempt to put my PowerPoint where my mouth is, embedded below is a presentation which I created to accompany my post on Key technology trends for 2007. Unfortunately the font (Cooper Black) got lost in the uploading...


Anonymous said...


Where did you get the picture on the front of your presentation? I'd love to use it...Thanks

Dan Taylor said...

It's a poster you can buy from eBoy

Cybersoc said...

This is a really useful post Dan - thanks for the tips, which I'm going to try to put to practise this very moment!

Unknown said...

With the greatest of respect, you are breaking most of the rules Sweller and colleagues (the Aussie researchers) discuss in the scholarly literature. Your textless slides are so complicated that working memory will be overloaded if you expect the audience to use the slides for learning. One website per slide might be a better idea. My eyes were blistered by the time I finished the slideshow. The headers would have been enough, then a live walk through. I'm afraid you're still locked into the cognitive style of powerpoint, which is to ignore the audience in favour of the presenter's ease.