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By | Guy Kewney 16th April 2007 10:34

Missing the PowerPoint of public speaking

Sliding into submission

Column The oxymoron "interesting PowerPoint presentation" was offered as a small witticism a few months back. I thought it was good, and shared it with a friend, who reacted angrily: "Blame the workman, not the tools," he said. Frankly, (I told him) I disagree. Powerpoint inherently ruins a presentation in 95 per cent of cases.

We've all heard the phrase "death by PowerPoint" - that numbing feeling the brain suffers as confusing slide after confusing slide follow one another. I have to do a lot of public speaking, and am one of those lucky people who think on their feet, without being afflicted by terror. But I couldn't help feeling that the good feedback I got from audiences wasn't just because I was a brilliant speaker. I'm not!

The common factor between my own presentations and others which were far better informed, researched and presented, was that they used PowerPoint and I didn't. Eventually, it dawned on me that PowerPoint really does ruin a good speech.

Academic research seems to back up my analysis. Professor John Sweller of the University of New South Wales said: "If you have ever wondered why your eyes start glazing over as you read those dot points on the screen, as the same words are being spoken, take heart in knowing there is a scientific explanation - it is more difficult to process information if it is coming at you in the written and spoken form at the same time."

My own dissertation, which I posted in a private CIX conference in 2005, said: "The problem is knowing when visuals are a help and when they aren't. There are indeed a few situations - of the 'blackboard notes' lecture type - where PowerPoint is actually useful - where you want to have your audience stop and write down what you're saying.

"It's not rocket science. If you want your audience's attention, don't distract them."

Blackboard note-giving, I suspect, is more useful than most speakers allow for. If they did that, they'd find Powerpoint useful. But, of course, they don't. They fall between two stools.

What they actually do is to put up a slide which, if the audience had time to write it down, consider, and study it, would be useful information. But, because they are presenting they feel they have to be entertaining, and they can't just shut up and let you make notes - which makes it hard to focus, either on the screen or on what the speaker is saying.

I have a very simple rule: If you want to illustrate your talk with the occasional amusing cartoon, do...but don't make the mistake of doing that at the same time as you try to make a technical or sales point.

Professor Sweller goes further and says notes should not be read aloud off the blackboard: "The use of the PowerPoint presentation has been a disaster. It should be ditched. It is effective to speak to a diagram, because it presents information in a different form. But it is not effective to speak the same words that are written, because it is putting too much load on the mind and decreases your ability to understand what is being presented."

Of course, if you are not a confident public speaker, notes can help. I would actually recommend using PowerPoint in preparation and then using it purely as an aide memoire.

When I was at school, we still had blackboards. Some of our teachers came in, talked to us, and then expected us to remember what they'd said; we didn't. Others came in, wrote stuff on the blackboard for 40 minutes, at the end of which we were in possession of our own hand-written copy of their notes, which, perhaps, one or two of us understood.

The good teachers did both, but never together. They would explain something, involve the class in question and answer discussion, then illustrate it with short blackboard notes. When everyone had copied the note, they'd discuss the next step. Then make more notes.

The speakers we remember best, are (naturally) the entertaining ones. But remembering the speaker is not necessarily the purpose of the event; for a lot of people, the content of the speech is why they paid the entrance fee. And I find that the people who teach me new stuff, are those who work interactively.

It's adding to the challenge if you expect to make a PowerPoint-based presentation which is as good as one which involves you making eye contact with your audience. I think this isn't a question of 'bad workman' - I think it's inherent in a situation where you're forcing the audience to decide: "Do we watch the speaker? or watch the screen?"

There are dozens of simple tricks for effective seminar presentation. One of the prime requirements is that you know what the audience wants to get from the talk. And it's a big mistake to imagine that the seminar organiser knows. One of the worst presentations I ever did was to an audience of technical librarians in Portugal, on behalf of a publisher who had started doing e-books.

My mistake was to assume, as the publisher had done, that technical librarians would be interested in technical books. Wrong! - they were interested in technical material, and the entire audience had stopped using "books" as a source of material years ago. They used online databases, and their customers wanted a particular section, not a whole book. "I never use any books. Well, maybe a Swedish-to-English dictionary, sometimes," mused one Scandinavian delegate afterwards.

This became apparent only a minute or two into the presentation, because I always make a point of engaging the audience, by asking questions: "How many of you...?" Too late! - I was chairing five other speakers, all of whom had prepared speeches, all about books. We bored the audience rigid, and there was nothing I could do. If the speakers had not brought their PowerPoint slides along, they could have done a session which would have produced a good response from the audience.

Naturally, I accept there are exceptions to my rule about "No slides!" - and it may even be the case that a large number of "incompetent workmen" are enabled to do presentations by having a competently-designed PowerPoint file.

For example, a presenter may have very poor public speaking skills and lose the thread if they feel the audience is actually looking at them. In this case a smoke-screen may be needed. You could persuade me that their knowledge is such that it's better they do a stilted, PowerPoint-propped talk than not do the talk at all.

But I'd be inclined to doubt that, without good evidence of real life examples.

My fundamental assumption is that most good presentations differ from bad presentations in one important aspect: interactivity. If you engage the audience, get them to respond in some way, you'll hold their attention and get good feedback.

I don't know how you'd set up a PowerPoint show that would allow that flexibility. In other words, I think PowerPoint is a strait-jacket which enforces mediocrity even on a good speaker. Unless, of course, it's a good joke in itself. You might also like to read Ed Tufte on why tools are not neutral. ®

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