November 8, 2006

Giving good presentations using PowerPoint

Chad Orzel of Uncertain Principles has a couple of recent posts on how to use PowerPoint (or other presentation software) to give presentations & lectures without causing too much pain to the audience.

The first post is A Good Craftsman Never Blames His Tools. The idea is that using PowerPoint is really independant of giving a good presentation. You can give good or bad presentations with or without PowerPoint.

Here's the thing: PowerPoint is a tool, nothing more. It doesn't make bad speakers into good speakers, or good speakers into bad speakers. The people you see giving boring and incoherent PowerPoint presentations? They'd be giving boring and incoherent presentations with regular slides or overhead transparencies. The people you see giving clear and inspiring presentations with PowerPoint? They'd give clear and inspiring presentations if they had to chisel their figures into stone tablets while they talked.

PowerPoint doesn't make presentations bad. It enables bad speakers to do a certain type of bad presentation very easily, but getting rid of PowerPoint won't change these people into good speakers. It just changes the mode of their badness slightly.
I agree with this sentiment completely and in my own presentations I always try to speak as naturally as possible, even when using a PowerPoint outline for my talk. In fact, I never use PowerPoint for IL sessions. I only use an outline-style webpage to guide me and provide a summary for the students. This has generally worked very well for me, as I can also save a few trees and hope that the web page replaces the need for me to give handouts that would rehash the same info. Obviously, if the prof posts the URL of my page to a course website, that's great too. As a bit of an aside, I once had a prof tell me that he didn't feel he needed to get me back to talk to new sessions of his class every year because he could just point his students to my page. Oh well.

Of course, it's easier said than done for most of us. As Chad says, PowerPoint enables a certain kind of badness which can be easy to slide into. I once had a prof that used a couple of hundred slides for a 2.5 hour class. Torture. In the next post in his series, How to Do a Good PowerPoint Lecture, he lists of bunch of suggestions to make our presentations work well. Many of his suggestions are definately geared towards his field of physics, but most are still applicable to librarians and beyond.

  1. Know Your Audience -- style, level, focus are all important considerations.
  2. Limit Your Material -- an absolute max of one slide/minute, less if possible
  3. Equations Are Death -- library analogy would be "buzzwords & acronyms are death."
  4. Text Is Death -- lean and mean slides, avoid complete sentences.
  5. Explain Your Graphics -- why is that screen shot here. Will anybody in the audience even be able to see it clearly enough?
  6. Define Your Terms -- he means constants & variables in equations, but could also mean acronyms or buzz words.
  7. Keep the Background Simple -- As in slide background.
  8. Keep the Animation Simple. Ooooh, I hates slide animation. If anyone ever catches me using it, please just shoot me.
  9. Keep Multimedia to a Minimum -- If multimedia can blow up on Bill Gates, it can blow up on you too.
  10. Prompt Yourself -- Prepare & rehearse well enough that you don't lose your place or get confused. Don't help yourself with this problem by having slides that confuse even you.
  11. Structure Matters -- You presentation should make sense.

These are also very sensible suggestions, and the comments at the end of Orzel's posts are also very illuminating, especially in the "yeah but..." sense that there's a good discussion of presentation techniques.

I'm presenting at the Ontario Library Association's 2007 SuperConference at the end of January (on blogs, natch) and I'm starting to work on my presentation. It should be interesting to see how well I do in following Orzel's suggestions. If you're there, let me know how I do. The program is here, you can find me by searching on Dupuis. Cory Doctorow is one of the keynotes, so it should be a hoot.

Update: For what it's worth, I actually plan on using the OpenOffice module Impress to create my presentation.

Orzel has added some of his own sample presentations for our perusal.

Yet another Update: Janet Stemwedel of Adventures in Ethics and Science has a related post where she discusses the dreaded read-a-paper style at philosophy conferences. Lots of good comments too.

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