Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Lecturing II

When did we become obsessed with PowerPoint?

PowerPoint is evil. Edward Tufte has a point there. Although not every PowerPoint presentation makes a space shuttle crash, the distraction and inefficiency of PowerPoint use is glaring.

Of course, it's not about the specific product, it's the presentation software in general. As Tufte rightly points out, the cognitive style of PowerPoint is good for a pitch, but not good at all for a technical report. As a result of increased PowerPoint usage, scientific talks and presentations in confrerences have become more like sales pitches and less like technical reports of research.

Before I go any further, I must confess that I always use PowerPoint myself, and not in the smartest ways. I've made most of the common mistakes myself and keep producing bad presentations as a rule. But, as any road to hell is paved with good intentions, any road to heaven leads via that same hell... Here goes, my PowerPoint hell (this should of course be a PP presentation rather than a blog entry).

1) Always use Comic Sans font.

It's funny and shows you are original and not the corporate type that uses Arial. It also makes you look like a four-year old , which is a good thing in a scientific conference as it makes you less intimidating and therefore more people are willing to come to talk to you about work and propose future projects. This is also why you never shoud wear ties or smart clothes in scientific conferences, they might think you are a banker at large.

2) Number of slides

Let x be the length of your talk in minutes. The number of slides, n, can be calculated from the formula n = cx, where c is a positive integer, and represents the quality of your content. The better the quality, the higher the c, and thus the number of slides. Note that at the minimum, c = 1, but this is in practice only for amateurs.

3) Slide transitions and animated effects

Let's face it, the reason why PowerPoint is for the professionals and regular overheads are for amateurs is that you can use the swanky spins and checkered fades to change from slide to another, or to go to the next point in the bulleted list. And, think of all those poor engineers at Redmond who have toiled to load the presentation software with these animations. It would be a SHAME if they were not used. Some of these effects even come with sounds, to really emphasise the importance of your next morcel of knowledge. Although most pre-2007 computers will freeze when processing the 270 degree folded outspin of the previous slide and the gradual water ripple effect fade-in of the next one, it is still worth the while to take the risk. People will appreciate the intention, and understand that the hardware is to blame for cramping your style, not you.

4) Read from the wall

Data projectors are dubious. They often change content of presentations, so that rather than reading your bullet points from the computer screen in front of you, facing the microphone on the lectern, you'd better turn around and read them from the wall. This way you also show the audience where to watch - a phenomenon known as joint attention.

5) PowerPoint is for the presenter, not the audience

After investing all that time and money for the presentation, including the license and hardware costs, it wouldn't be fair if the presenter didn't benefit from the presentation software. Therefore it is only natural that what gets written on the PowerPoint slides are the notes of the speaker. If people have for centuries lectured reading their talks from a paper, it is only a continuation of a proud tradition if they now read their talks from the PowerPoint slides, or from the wall, if they take the tip 4) seriously.

6) Hierarchy rules, sentences don't

Everything will look more neat when set in a slide. Up to 10 levels of hierarchy, and no full sentences. Information superhighway turbo-charged presentation of facts, facts, facts, and none of that silly fluff you get with romantic novels. As mentioned in the previous post, you can verb your nouns, drop your filler words and thus fit more content to your 20 minutes.

If you are having trouble organising your content to meet the form, the auto-content function of PowerPoint is impressive. Imagine how much more impact president Lincoln would have got from his Gettysburg address had he used PowerPoint! Check it out.


1 comment:

Tommi Laitio said...

Could not agree more (although just given a PowerPoint in a scientific setting here in Zürich). I usually just get a headache from the funny pictures, the "smooth" changes between slides and the use of dozen different colours per slide.

I am not saying that we should go back to speaking from our notes, not at all. Especially when speaking to a foreign (oh sorry, meant not native English) audience the fact that the main points are on the wall is just kind and wise. But seeing once a presentation of 20 minutes with more than 40 slides made me despise the programme so much that decided to buy the Mac presentation programmes (only to run into compatibility problems and being forced to surrender to Gates in 2 weeks).