Death by Power Point (Bullet points aren't everything)

Snapshot: Classroom

Tap tap tap. That's your pencil hitting the edge of your desk, one rhythmic note at a time. The wood of the pencil has a little indent now from all the tapping (unless you use a mechanical pencil), but at least you're still awake. The kid next to you has been slumped over his notebook for the past half hour. You're pretty sure he's snoring. He has every reason to be, though; the professor has a fantastically monotone voice. Bullet point after bullet point, slide after slide. It's not like you have to pay attention, either--everything the professor is saying is in the lecture notes handed out at the start of class. But you feel obligated to try to stay awake.

Death by Power Point

Is this at all familiar? Most of us, at some point or another, have experienced the ultimate Boring Lecture: A droning, not-quite-loud-enough voice, reading sentences one by one off a set of elaborate PowerPoint slides. The slides look pretty, sure, but fancy formatting can't overcome the serious lack of anything remotely engaging.

Fortunately, most lecturers aren't that bad. But as my friend Carolyn points out, a lot of professors still rely too heavily on PowerPoint. The primary instruction, she says, needs to come from the professors, not from the text slopped across their slides.

And it's true. A lecture is a performance, and Hubert Knoblauch's (2008) analysis of PowerPoint presentations suggests that the use of PowerPoint serves to amplify the performance aspect. Slides should complement rather than replace the presenter's speech. They should be used to emphasize points and help explain difficult concepts with diagrams and photos; after all, a separate sheet of lecture notes with all the text of the bullet points can be handed out later. This may sound obvious, but in practice, most of us conform to convention of cluttering up our slides with too many words and too much visual noise.

Keep it simple, stupid

How do we fix this problem and avoid death by PowerPoint? Garr Reynolds recommends a highly minimalist approach (he's got a handout[pdf] summarizing his suggestions). Instead of lists and summaries, put just a few key words boldly in the middle of the slide. Use large images and diagrams. Turn off the projector entirely when you happen to digress from the slides. Remove excess logos and irrelevant graphics--they're just visual noise that detract from your message.

It may take some effort to get the hang of the minimalist presentation (I certainly haven't gotten it down, though I try), and it will certainly take some guts to be the nonconformist who doesn't use bullet points. One of my professors at the University of Sydney told a story about a student who went minimalist and was marked down as a result: It wasn't a proper presentation! (The audience, however, said it was one of the best presentations they had seen in a long time.)

A place for everything

That said, bullet points occasionally have their place: e.g., when the goal is to memorize facts (Kinchin & Cabot, 2007). But if the aim is to make links between concepts and gain a deeper understanding of the subject, other methods of presenting information may fare better. I'll open up the floor. What tips and tricks do you keep up your sleeve for making a PowerPoint engaging? Do you adhere to minimalism? Obviously, it's not all about the slides--it's also about delivery. Feel free to share thoughts on that, too.


Knoblauch, H. (2008). The Performance of Knowledge: Pointing and Knowledge in Powerpoint Presentations. Cultural Sociology, 2(75):75-97. [PDF]

Kinchin, I., & Cabot, L. (2007). Using concept mapping principles in PowerPoint. Eur J Dent Educ, 11: 194-199. [PDF].

Sunday, November 8, 2009 - tags: advice presentations


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