Soapbox: Powerless Presentations

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soapboxOkay, so I’m hardly the first person to rail against the abuses committed with PowerPoint by presenters – but I find myself boggled at the really quite irritatingly basic errors being committed by people who are clearly intelligent and competent in their areas of specialism. And it’s not just PowerPoint – though that accursed software does offer apparently hard-to-refuse opportunities to screw up.

So, just let me get this off my chest. And if it helps someone avoid presenting in a counter-productive way, all the better. Because these issues are all about habits that make it harder for an audience to understand what you’re trying to tell them.

The first three points are about PowerPoint. I could write more than three, but I’ll stick with the most important:

  • Visual coherence/comprehensibility. This is so basic I’m almost embarrassed to write it. You need to make sure that any fancy background pattern on your slides doesn’t make it impossible to see the content. White text on a background image that includes white is not helpful.
  • The meaning of bullet points. Just because PowerPoint presents you with bullet points as a default layout on the slide does not mean that your content actually makes sense in that form. Bullet points signal that each item on the list is the same class of information; e.g. this list is a set of things that drive me round the bend about presentations. If your text is a series of ideas that make up your argument, that is not a bulleted list, so delete the bullet points, okay? Otherwise the visual layout of the content is giving misleading information about the conceptual structure.
  • Amount of stuff on a slide. So, there are three sub-issues here. One is just visual: the more there is on the slide, the smaller the text gets, and the harder it is to read. Second, if you fill up the slide with stuff to read, people just focus on reading the text rather than listening to you. Especially if you’ve got an audience full of academics – these are people who cannot resist the written word and will study the back of the cereal packet at breakfast if there’s nothing else to read. Third, it’s generally the people who have loads of stuff on their slide who say, ‘oh and I’ll skip ahead here as we’re short of time,’ which leaving the audience wondering about all the intriguing points they’ve half read but which are now being missed out.

This leads me onto the biggy, which is nothing to do with the structure of the software and everything to do with basic competence:

Why do people turn up with presentations that are simply too long for the time available?

All that skipping ahead ‘because we’re short of time’ is just rude to the audience. Why is the stuff there if there’s not time to present it? If your argument makes sense without it, why did you cram it in there to begin with? Really, it only takes 20 minutes to test-run a 20-minute presentation – if it takes any longer than that, you know you have make some cuts!

Back at a research students’ conference in the mid-90s, this issue came up in the closing feedback session. Bethany Lowe made the point very nicely when she gently commented that she cared about this because: ‘the longest presentations aren’t necessarily the most interesting…’

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