One of the endlessly recurring topics around here is the use of PowerPoint and comparable presentation software. Usually because of some ill-informed rant against the use of PowerPoint.
It’s come around yet again in a particularly ironic fashion, via an online slideshow at Slate, the only medium more consistently exasperating than a bad PowerPoint presentation. In keeping with modern tastes, this has been re-shared so many times that I finally went to look at it, but it’s more of the usual, in a more annoying medium. This is a bit of a shame, as there’s actually some good presentation advice buried in there, but between the format and the usual raft of misconceptions, it’s kind of hard to find.
The biggest problem I have with this is the blanket declaration that PowerPoint– or, more precisely, a particular style of PowerPoint– is “destroying higher education.” Which is an ill-formed claim on a lot of levels, but mostly in the claim that “higher education” is a single coherent thing. Which it’s not. Standards for what counts as good and effective teaching vary dramatically across disciplines and even within them. What’s well suited to one area is slow death in another, but that doesn’t mean that either of those groups is wrong.
So, yes, it’s absolutely true that text-heavy PowerPoint presentations that are made available online are deadly for classes where the discussion in class is the whole point of the course. But that’s not all of higher education. And if you’re working in a subject that involves more direct transfer of knowledge than mutual construction thereof, text-heavy PowerPoints made available online are the right tool for the job.
For the umpteenth time, then: PowerPoint is a tool, nothing more and nothing less. It can be used in many different ways, some of them good, some of them bad. The key to using it effectively is knowing your audience. Or, more precisely, your audiences, plural.
If I’m giving a public lecture or a TED-type talk, I’ll use slides with big splashy images and very few words. If I’m putting together a colloquium talk, I’ll use a bit more text, but still try to emphasize images. If I’m teaching an intro physics class, where I expect students will need to go back over the material multiple times while doing homework, I’ll use slides with a lot more text and equations, because I’m going to make those slides available on the course website after class, so students can go back and check stuff. If I’m teaching a seminar-type class, I’ll use a mix of those– on days when discussion is the main point, it’ll be mostly images, but on days when I need to convey factual information, there will be more text.
Even the better bits of that slideshow’s advice aren’t universal. I’m generally against giving an outline of your talk up front, because it mostly just wastes time. But there are topics where the path to be followed is sufficiently twisty that an outline is genuinely helpful, as a road map to the talk. (And that’s without even getting into fields where a clear outline at the beginning is an absolute cultural norm.) There’s no rule that applies to absolutely every presentation in absolutely every circumstance.
PowerPoint is a tool, but it’s not a single blunt instrument like a hammer. It’s very versatile, and can be used in lots of different ways. The key is knowing which of those ways to use in different sets of circumstances, and adjusting your style to match the audiences. Many of the alleged misuses of it are really “This isn’t how it ought to be used in my field,” which manages to be both perfectly true and perfectly useless.