PowerPoint and Knowing Your Audience(s)

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.

More like this

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.

I disagree. I found it IMMENSELY FRUSTRATING (see how frustrating? ALL CAPS) when my engineering classes were given as PowerPoint presentations because of the very low information density that fits on a slide, which can make it almost impossible to follow a lengthy derivation. The blackboard is so much better for that sort of thing, and so were transparencies. When I can only see the last two equations in the derivation, I get stabby because I'm being forced to work harder to understand than I need to. In grad school, it got to the point that if I came to class on the first day and saw the professor was going to be using PowerPoint for the whole semester instead of the blackboard, I'd drop the course. There are always other classes.

By particle_person (not verified) on 08 Mar 2014 #permalink

That "are" should have been a "can be." But as someone who took E&M from a very senior professor who could make any Greek letter look like a q, I can assure you that there are times when PowerPoint is a vast improvement. You may only be able to see a couple of steps, but at least you can read them...

For me I think the problem I have with power point is that there is such a narrow band of effective presentation and it takes effort to do it well. I would say, of the professors I've had, 80% can use the board at least moderately effectively. Powerpoint lectures seem to stray to either the low information density (thus being useless, but pretty) or absurdly dense (I had one professor whose powerpoints were walls of black text that he read to us word for word). I suspect this will change as more professors have grown up with power point and are better aware of its pitfalls, but in the meantime it can be immensely frustrating (and soporific) to sit in a lecture with a poorly done powerpoint.

By Charlotte S. (not verified) on 08 Mar 2014 #permalink

I don't actually think there's as much difference between PowerPoint and more traditional methods as a lot of people claim. Most of the failure modes of PowerPoint have analogues in the chalk-talk world, as well. It's just that those have been around for so long that people accept them as an inevitable part of the process. But since PowerPoint is relatively new, more recent failures get attributed to it, rather than to bad/lazy teaching.

My primary objection to PowerPoint in particular is quite field-specific. I'm a particle physicist, and PowerPoint (and Word, and Keynote, et al.) is utterly worthless for doing any kind of proper mathematical or scientific notation. It can't handle multilevel, let alone multiline, equations. It can't even naturally handle combined sub- and subscripts on the same symbol!

It is great for combining text and graphics, and it is really nice for taking a graphic and putting annotations on it (calling out a particular feature, or whatever). I do most of my talks in LaTeX, to get the math, but I do wish I could have the lovely graphical support that PPT provides.

I think the commentary about how much information is presented, and the style of presentation, boils down to whether or not the talk's author is an effective communicator or not. If you know how to get your information across, you can do it in any medium (whiteboard, plastic transparencies, PowerPoint, or napkins in a bar). If you don't know how, then having an easy-to-use tool just isn't going to help.

By Michael Kelsey (not verified) on 08 Mar 2014 #permalink

In my experience the difficulty with electronic slide presentations, including lectures, is TMI. In the old days of monochrome television, dinosaurs, and blackboards, the information rate was moderated by how fast the speaker/lecturer could write on the board. He/she moderated his rate of speech to what he/she was writing. And the students could further moderate the information rate by asking questions. Completing the analysis is left to the student.

By Bruce W. Fowler (not verified) on 09 Mar 2014 #permalink

The worst thing about Powerpoint, and Latex, is how difficult they make it to actually present material. A long division problem can be written out fully in ~60 seconds. To typset this in Latex/Power point would take 6 hours.

I'm currently given out a set of Latex typed notes this semester. Last semester I gave out a set of handwritten notes covered in (albeit wobbly) sketches and drawings, inter-spaced with equations and short comments. And the more I compare them with the barren mass of typeset white space, rigidly linear equation presentation bookmarked by morbid paragraphs of text, and with Figures placed a pages, two, or even three pages away from where they are supposed to be references... the more I begin to see the superiority of simple handwritten notes.

The end result is that you, as the creator, become more and more reluctant to actually cover material which is difficult to so typeset. I have found myself, initially motivated to teach beautiful material, pausing when I consider the extreme difficulty of actually drawing the graphs and figures and constructs I mean to represent. It is very annoying and a little scary to think how the difficulties of Latex/Powerpoint can subtly make you edit yourself in this way.

We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.

> 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.

For PPT as a medium of information transfer, you may be interested in this: http://www.duarte.com/slidedocs/

@Niall #7: I don't disagree with your assessment, but my personal experience is exactly the inverse. I find PPT extremely difficult to use effectively, probably because of lack of practice/interest. So, just as you describe, I find myself avoiding certain things, or ways of presenting information, because I can't figure out how to do it.

For me, though, LaTeX is extremely simple, and I can do very complex layouts with it. Why? Because I've been using it since 1988, when I started grad school. I sometimes use it just for composing notes and information for myself, because I can type everything, including the markup, without switching hands, or looking up stuff in help/Google, etc.

I think your general statement -- that we often, and unconsciously, edit what we present because of our tools -- is a good one. But I think it applies to all tools, and applies differently to each author, based on their expertise.

By Michael Kelsey (not verified) on 09 Mar 2014 #permalink

I tend to agree that PowerPoint isn't the problem, but I do believe that it is the enabler. Bad presentations have been around for as long as there have been presentations, bad lecturers have been around as long as there have been lecturers, etc. The main problem with powerpoint, and it is more of a problem than we had back in the viewgraph days, is the ease of creating junk. Not an original observation, but still true.

The defaults for powerpoint arn't conduitive to a good presentation (busy backgrounds, often poor text size) and it takes effort to select better options.

What we tend to see in ANY medium is what the medium makes easy to produce. This is not generally what we want, unless we are the ones that produced the medium in the first place.

If I was going to give a recommendation for good presentation that works across the board, no matter the context, it would be MAKE IT READABLE. This has a bunch of facets, like non-distracting background, appropriate color selection (black text on white or light background works pretty well for almost any projector), and large enough text. Text that is too small is useless. Yes, you can read it on your laptop. No, we can't read it on the projection. The contrast is lower and the resolution is (generally) lower. And, usually, most of the audience is seeing the screen over a smaller visual angle than you see your laptop screen.

In my opinion, the worst presentations are those where there is so much on the screen that it is unreadable, and those where the presenter keeps needing to go back to slides because there isn't enough screen space, or, worse yet, won't go back when needed. Typical of heavy derivations. One of the things I prefer a board for, as there is generally sufficient space to leave starting points or way points visible throughout the process.

Many of the awful things you see in PowerPoint presentations are techniques that have been around since the days of 35 mm slides (which was before my time). Google "truly terrible talk" to see a handy list--when I was in grad school, my primary scientific society would include this list (or the companion list for posters, depending on what format you were assigned) with the acceptance letter. As e@10 says, what PowerPoint does is make it easy to use several of these techniques.

Michael @5: There are solutions to your problem. I have an application that will let me typeset an equation in LaTeX and export it as an image to use in PowerPoint or other presentation software. I agree that Microsoft's equation editor is unsuitable for any but the most trivial of mathematics.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 10 Mar 2014 #permalink

Very useful tool (and easy) for LaTeX slide presentation is http://www.writelatex.com - It is a co-operative WYSWIG tool. - I agree Powerpoint is just a tool - but not an universal tool. So in some areas, one can either use blackboard or LaTeX

By Mukkai S. Kris… (not verified) on 14 Mar 2014 #permalink