Rethinking Slides: The Purpose of PowerPoint

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Last night, my professor gave our class directions for next week’s group presentations on a specific communication theory.  He said he wanted us to focus on clarity of ideas as opposed to presentation “glitz,” and he asked that we keep things simple and avoid a whirling, swirling Prezi.  When my group came together to discuss our theory and how we might present it to our classmates, I asked, “Can we NOT use a PowerPoint?”  By the reaction I got, you would have thought I asked my group members to put their hands into a wood chipper.

Undeterred by a little pushback, I suggested we avoid going the death-by-PowerPoint route and stick to a handout instead.  It took me getting approval from the professor before the group agreed.  I thought to myself… Since when did “PowerPoint” become synonymous with “presentation?”  And since when did suggesting we ditch the slideshow software become an outlandish suggestion?

Last week, I wrote “3 Reasons To Ditch Your PowerPoint Slides” based on an NPR article I’d read.  Last night, I realized we need to take an even further step back and examine the purpose of PowerPoint.

Death By PowerPoint

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The goal of a presentation is to share an idea with a group of people.  Sometimes, slides are a great way to reinforce that message visually.  Most of the time, slides aren’t necessary.  First, we must decide if we even need slides to communicate our message.  We can ask ourselves these questions:  What is my message?  What does my audience need to know about my message?  How can I effectively get my message to my audience?  Why does my message matter to my audience?  Would visual aids help an audience “see” my message?  If so, what kind of visual aids would be best?

Most PowerPoint slides don’t contain visuals to support the message – they contain the message itself.  If you skip these questions and open up PowerPoint, you are typing in notes.  PowerPoint isn’t a container for notes… It was originally created to be a visual aid.  A visual aid is defined as something you look at in order to make a concept easier to understand (Source).  A visual aid should be visual.  Text-heavy slides are just the opposite of visual; in fact, text-heavy slides are just your presentation notes written down.  Don’t display your notes… Your notes are for you.  Your audience doesn’t need to read your notes.  Your audience needs visual stimulation through actual visuals.

Molecular biologist John Medina studies the brain and names vision as our dominant sense.  He says, “Toss your PowerPoint presentations. It’s text-based (nearly 40 words per slide), with six hierarchical levels of chapters and subheads—all words. Professionals everywhere need to know about the incredible inefficiency of text-based information and the incredible effects of images” (Source).  Consider the picture superiority effect:

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So, if audience’s brains are attracted to visually-driven information, and if PowerPoint slides were originally designed to be visual, why aren’t we using the medium properly?

Guy Kawasaki interviewed presentation expert Garr Reynolds on this very topic.  Reynolds says, “We can make effective presentations with even older versions of PowerPoint—often by ignoring most of the features. Ultimately it comes down to us and our skills and our content. Each case is different, and some of the best presentations include not a single slide. In the end it is about knowing your material deeply and designing visuals that augment and amplify your spoken message” (Source).

deathbypowerpoint

Think about how you feel when you sit in a room and watch PowerPoint after PowerPoint after PowerPoint filled with bullets.  After a few minutes, you’re tired, you’re bored, you’d rather be doing something else.  If your audience isn’t paying attention and would rather be doing something else, you haven’t done your job as the presenter.  Your job is to engage your audience, to inform but to entertain them, to get them excited about a particular topic, to motivate them, to persuade them… If your audience feels nothing but apathy and boredom, your presentation was a waste of everyone’s time.

Most importantly, if your audience has your entire message written down, they don’t need you!  Take a look at this PowerPoint called, hilariously enough, “Giving Good Presentations.”  Since I can read this information from start to finish, I don’t need anyone to read it for me.  I don’t need to go to a lecture hall, a conference room, or a TED convention to have this stuff read aloud for me.  That means this isn’t a presentation – it’s a document.  Anything with a bunch of text on it is a document – it’s not a slide.

Turning your document into a slideshow is easy and effective.  Instead of displaying your notes, use visually-driven slides dominated by images.  Doing so means your job as a presenter is no longer obsolete – your audience needs YOU to connect the dots and to explain each slide.  Garr Reynolds shows you some before and after slides here to get you started moving in the right direction.

Reynolds gives us one final thought, “PowerPoint and Keynote are both pretty simple tools, but there has been too much focus on the tools themselves. If people want to learn how to make better slides they should study good books on graphic design and visual communication to improve their visual literacy” (Source).

How do YOU convince people to rethink PowerPoint and to understand the purpose of a slideshow?

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