This month’s Learning Circuit’s Big Question is: “PowerPoint – What is Appropriate, When and Why?“. Tony Karrer’s collected some nice articles about the underlying cognitive issues, and it jives with what I’ve seen. The big complaints are too much text on the screen, too many bullet points, and overloaded graphics. That’s not a surprise. This also clearly indicates to me it’s about bad use of PowerPoint, not the tool itself.
I took a two-day ‘presentation course’, after several years of university teaching and several corporate presentations, and recall the instructions that it’s about you, not the slides, and you shouldn’t have slides except when you’re showing a diagram. That’s similarly indicated by others. However, I think you need to look at the broader context of what sort of talk it is, who the audience is, and what the setting is. I mostly talk to practitioners at different levels. In my mind, a keynote is very different from a conference session from a board presentation from a customer presentation from a… PowerPoint will have different roles.
From this point on, I’m going to talk about useful information communication: stuff that helps you make decisions. This is not a keynote, nor even a customer presentation, but more like a conference or board presentation or a training session.
Speaking of which, conference organizers ask for your slides beforehand, and ask for handouts. As an attendee, I like having handouts to make notes on. And sometimes I even try to take a copy of slides for a presentation I can’t attend, when there’s another presentation at the same time I also want to attend and I haven’t yet mastered being in two places at once (though sometimes my clients insist that I must).
As a reality check, I went back and looked at my own PowerPoint presentations (conference presentations), and I’m not squeaky clean. I do have lots of graphics (I peg the ‘visual’ and ‘conceptual’ meters; see my Models page), but I also have bullet points. But that’s deliberate.
There’re several reasons. As indicated above, I like to have a place to take notes, and want to provide the same for my audience. Yes, they could have a pad of paper, but I like providing the slides with generous white space for them to take notes. I generally don’t put a lot of prose on those slides, but only telegraphic bits that keep me from forgetting an important point and that I elaborate on, not reciting against. Instead, a reminder both for me and the audience when they come back to the slides (I know that at least *some* do).
Also, I know that one way to keep people from being able to fully interpret what you’ve presented unless they attend is to not have all the prose on the slide. So the ‘key phrases’ approach is also a way to induce people to actually stick around and find out what they unpack to (without that extra presentation, it’s pretty hard to know what’s coming there, and again that’s deliberate). It also induces extra cognitive processing, to map what I say to the phrase, which is good for the right audience.
I also understand the realities of most presentation situations: that people’s attention can be distracted by someone coming in the room, by an email or text message, by a colleague’s wry comment, whatever. Having the structure of the handout and the slides helps them reconnect. Also, I do add extra references and tools to the end of the handout when appropriate to support taking action on the presentation. And, as part of the emotional as well as cognitive component, I like context-setting through images that elaborate prose, and quotes that pithily indicate some of the background thinking.
So, my answer to the question is that what’s appropriate are diagrams, quotes, images, and limited bullet point lists, in that order, for cognitive and emotional value. My presentations may not be perfect, but I strive to provide long-lasting value (not immediate appeal), just as in everything else I do.