The bane of PowerPoint

Researchers at UNSW recently released findings indicating that the conventional use of PowerPoint is extremely ineffective. Specifically, they point the finger at the habit of reading what is written on the screen. This is counterproductive, they claim, because the brain is ineffective at simultaneously processing written and spoken information. Thus, when a viewer is following along with the presenter, reading what is written on the screen, their retention is significantly less than if the information were presented either just in written or just in spoken format.

This is music to my ears and confirms a belief that I have long held. Screen presentations should be used to present complementary information to what the presenter say, not repeat the same information. Whenever I attend a talk where the presenter has carefully written out bullet points and essentially reads what is written on the screen, I cringe and think what an amateur presenter they are. As a rule of thumb I advocate the following guidelines when writing screen presentations. First, never write entire sentences or, even worse, paragraphs. Keep text to an absolute minimum and when used make it as simple and concise as possible. Second, favour graphics over text. This is a good way to avoid repeating what you say in written form. Third, never read from the screen or repeat exactly what is written on the screen. Finally, never use those ridiculous screen transitions. They're cute, but they only distract the audience from what it is you're trying to convey.

6 thoughts on “The bane of PowerPoint”

  1. I agree with what you said. At small conferences at least, free presentations supported by some overheads or a CD (with PowerPoint or whatever) may be the best. A few years ago, at a conference at the Santa Fe Institue, we were specifically asked not to use PowerPoint (some did it anyway).

  2. I agree with most of what you say – except I don’t think you need to be so harsh on the animations. I admit that I enjoy them for their “cuteness” but I also believe that they have their place and can add clarity/flow to some descriptions.

  3. I wasn’t really referring to animations in general, just silly screen transitions. I agree that regular animations can sometimes convery information that would otherwise be very difficult.

  4. I expect that most people will agree with you, as these are pretty obvious points. I also expect that most people actually try to take these things into account when preparing a presentation. But I think that you are ignoring that fact that the decision to present in the way that you disapprove of isn’t necessarily made to improve the style or clarity of the talk, but is made to serve some other purpose. For example, many people find presenting difficult, so the choice to sacrifice retention for making the talk more easy to deliver is a good one.

  5. I agree that, for some people at least, presenting in the conventional manner that I decry is a result of sacrificing retention for ease of delivery. For a humble first year PhD student this would be a believable and excusable approach. However, what surprises me is the number of very capable speakers, including professors and well known academics, who also make this sacrifice. For these people I don’t believe there is a concious decision to sacrifice retention for ease of delivery, rather it is their bad presentation habits and lack of thought into how deliver a clear presentation.

  6. I generally agree with these findings, but as for text on slides, one thing that I have difficulty with is that a lot of people don’t put the context. For example, one could be giving a talk on special relativity and talking about time dilation and length contraction, and as a bullet point they’ll put

    “Faster velocities mean intervals appear shorter”

    Now, for a person not familiar with SR, is it the time interval or the length interval that gets shorter? There is no context. Now one could just say “don’t put that bullet point on the screen”, but I’m just trying to make an example. Same thing with graphs — put clear titles.

    I once saw a guy who had several paragraphs on a slide, in a small font.

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