5- Shades of PowerPoint

When I was teaching back in Indiana, I used PowerPoint fairly regularly to present content to my students. It served as a record of what I had taught, so I could use it the next year; it allowed students who were absent to catch up on some of the material that they had missed; it helped students know what they were supposed to take notes on in class.

Since I’ve been in Hanoi, I’ve been able to take a step back and reflect a bit on all those PowerPoints, somewhat to my chagrin. As I sit in the theater with the other teachers and we watch a presentation from Operations, or Finance, or the Board of Directors, I remember what it’s like to see people reading off of PowerPoint slides.

Although there are many different metaphors that I find helpful when I think about teaching, one of them is performance art.  It is a type of performance that should be more interactive than a movie or a theater performance, but perhaps less than a massive game of soccer. If teaching is a performance, then what is the metaphorical equivalent of reading text off of PowerPoint slides? Would that be akin to watching actors play out a scene before they are off-script?

Last November I read How to Deliver a TED Talk: Secrets of the World’s Most Inspiring Presentations, by Jeremy Donovan.  Donovan has spent years studying what makes for an effective presentation, and is also one of the most avidly anti-PowerPoint presentation writers I’ve seen.  In his mind, the majority of slides in presentations do the opposite of what was intended: rather than enhancing the presentation they distract from it.

Donovan points out that the most popular TED talk as of yet, Sir Ken Robinson’s “Do Schools Kill Creativity”, does not use any slides or images at all.  Robinson is not the only one who has found power in stripping his presentation down to the bare essentials; another great example is Angela Lee Duckworth’s “The Key to Success: Grit”.

And yet, neither life nor teaching is a TED talk.  Crafting a strong, clear message can not take a cookie-cutter approach, and different presentations require different elements. With that said, here are some thoughts about a few different presentation styles and what strengths each bring to the table.

StyleDescriptionProsCons
All TalkThis is the style described above, as used by Ken Robinson and Angela Lee Duckworth in their TED talks. Focus on presenter
Great for storytelling
Zero distractions
Requires strong speaking
Audience may forget points
Words can be inadequate
Difficult for dry subjects
Relies on speaker credibility
Difficult to take notes
Pictures onlyThis style is actually fairly uncommon, and consists of a slide show with all photos and no text.Fosters careful observation
Photos can add credibility
Can compliment narrative
Shows rather than tells
Illustrates examples
Shows other perspectives
Requires strong speaking, off-script
Requires outstanding photos
Can take attention off speaker
Difficult to convey complexity with no narration
Difficult for audience to take notes
Hard to show non-visual topics
Looks bad with stock photos
Pictures and Word FragmentsElegant style, relying mostly on pictures with some supporting text. Examples include ISB’s brochure and Daniel Pink’s TED talk “The Puzzle of Motivation”All of the Pros above, plus:

Simple words can express abstract ideas
Conceptual anchors for interpreting photos
All of the Cons above, EXCEPT:

Hard to show non-visual topics
Looks bad with stock photos
Pictures and Bullet pointsThis is one of most common styles of presentations; typically has text on one side and a picture on the other, or alternates text slides with pictures. An example is Gary Stager’s TEDx talk on Seymour Papert.Easy for speaker to focus on talking points
Can be easily converted into notes
Caters to audience that prefers to read instead of listen
Redundant - audience reading & being read to
Focus is on the details, not the big picture
Attention divided between reading and listening
Often slides have too much text

Mostly or all textThe most classic example of this is reading a book out loud (perhaps showing pictures). This can also be found in comically bad PowerPoints, such as Peter Norvig’s PowerPoint version of the Gettysburg AddressFor book reading:

Makes reading more social
Presenter can practice reading out-loud
Allows a story to be acted as well as read

For PowerPoint: none
For book reading:

Does not require reader to internalize the story
Usually only the reader is engaging in the story

For PowerPoint: everything