Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Animate this!

It almost seems unreal, but the first presentation I saw that was done completely on PowerPoint was only about seven years ago. Before that, almost all talks I heard used a combination of overheads (with the old fashioned transparency on an overhead projector, sometimes with a few impromptu scribbles along the way) and slides (and an old fashioned slide projector). But we were mesmerized by the power of the PowerPoint dark magic and the neat little graphic animations. At the time my unequivocal opinion was that PowerPoint was the most advanced and sophisticated tool ever created to enable effective presentations.

Of course, like most things, perspectives change over time.

While I haven’t quite classified PowerPoint presentations as the great evil, I’m slowly coming around to the point that PowerPoint, in most hands, can do more to damage talks than to enhance them. It has taken time, but by closely observing the really good speakers and their presentations and trying to learn from them, I’ve put together some thoughts on the pitfalls of PowerPoint, and what needs to be done or avoided in giving good thoughts (putting them to practice seems to be a completely different ball game though).

Perhaps because of the ease of making slides due to PowerPoint, many of us have forgotten what talks are all about. There is an auditory component in talks, and there is the visual component. Striking a balance between the two is essential. But what PowerPoint seduces us to do is to go overboard on the visual component. This means it is easy to overload the slide with data or words or to throw in too many bells and whistles. I remember a couple of occasions when I (shamefully) “winged” through some journal club style presentations, because I thought I could easily create some slides with a lot of verbal and visual content which I could use as a crutch to work through the talk. This ability to put a lot on the slide can easily allow laziness to creep in, and by not planning through the talk well enough, one becomes too reliant on what is on those slides. Almost always, the talk suffers, since you haven’t done enough homework on the content, or have put in so much information on the slides that the audience zones out due to a visual overload.

The second thing PowerPoint does (which sometimes takes a while to undo) is make you create slides that dictate the content of the talk. Instead of planning a careful outline of the talk, and systematically outlining the flow of the talk in your head, one might easily succumb to the temptation of making slides on the go. Traditionally, one would sit down and carefully outline all parts of the talk (usually on paper or a document), but the very ease of making and deleting slides might make you avoid that. Interestingly, PowerPoint does have an “outline” option which most of us don’t use but probably should.

Sometimes, when you make a really neat presentation with plenty of nice bells and whistles or cool pictures, you are tempted to use it no matter what, and end up recycling too many slides regardless of the audience. This goes back to the previous point of not planning through your talk well enough, which goes back to the ease of making slides (or reusing old slides) on the go. Sure, a lot of this comes from laziness, but hey, aren’t we all lazy?

Powerpoint also seems to take away the dynamic nature of talks. Talks are very personal, and the nature of the speaker really dictates the quality of the talks. But if the audience is forced to stare only at a large white screen and visually overloaded PowerPoint slides, the dynamism of the speaker and the interactions of the speaker with the audience are often lost. Also, if the speaker has this “eureka” moment during a talk, or thinks of something connected to his/her talk; it is really hard to incorporate that into the talk easily, since the slides dictate the content of the talk. Unfortunately, most lecture halls have lost the overhead projector, screen and transparency (which can so easily and effectively be used to illustrate a point or a tangential thought during a presentation). It’s a pity, since some of the very best talks I’ve attended were by speakers who almost completely used transparencies (with some writing and illustrations thrown in during the talk) while presenting their own thoughts very clearly in their words. The big screen with the PowerPoint slides also sometimes tempts the speaker (I’m certainly guilty of this) to hide behind the slides, as opposed to stepping up and making the talk his or hers, using the slides only to illustrate the point.

So essentially the effort has to be made by the speaker to use PowerPoint effectively to communicate with the audience, and that fact should never be forgotten. This starts with making a good outline of the presentation, and using dynamic headings on the slide (making statements, instead of stating detailed facts in the titles). Illustrations with fewer words whenever possible make life much easier for an audience (a picture does speak a thousand words, usually without putting the audience to sleep). But finally, the presentation must be made personal and about you. Every conscious effort needs to be made to avoid making the presentation glossy-generic (which PowerPoint almost automatically does). Presentations should be about standing and delivering, and avoiding the crutch of slides whenever it can be avoided. And every possible effort should be made to avoid slipping into slide mediocrity, and forgetting the fact that presentations are about the speaker communicating with an audience.

Have a good thanksgiving all, and pitch in with your opinions about the evil magic slide maker TM.


CuriousCat said...

I might be missing something, but as far as I can see, Sunil, the points you are making define bad speakers, irrespective of the presentation aid they use. I mean, a good speaker always decides on a story to tell and then chooses what visuals (words, pictures, graphs) would aid him/her tell the

Sunil said...

well yes...some of these things certainly apply to bad speakers. But I think powerpoint encourages some amount of laziness and it is very easy for a mediocre speaker (such as myself) to make a very bad presentation because he/she was carried away with the medium. On the other hand, if there wasn't the crutch of fancy slides, I would put in a lot more effort into giving the talk itself. Good speakers will always give good talks, regardless of their medium. Make sense?

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