Making Powerful Points

PowerPoint cops a lot of flak sometimes. People often use it in a way that is overdone, hackneyed, clichéd, uncreative and just plain boring. You’ll often hear the phrase “death by PowerPoint”, as presenters try to wear you down with slide after boring slide of bulleted points and flying text effects. Although PowerPoint is still seen by some teachers as a useful tool for education, it’s relevance in a Web 2.0 world seems to be on the decline and I’ve heard a number of disparaging comments about poor old PowerPoint recently suggesting that it’s time in the educational sun is well and truly over.

I can understand why any teacher who has been teaching with with technology for a while might be sick of PowerPoint. They’ve no doubt sat through dozens, even hundreds, of PowerPoint presentations over the years. Many of these have been peppered with flying text that swoops across the page letter by letter while making swooshing sounds, or seeing slides that require 30 clicks to build a series of stretched, distorted and probably irrelevant images that drop, bounce, swish and zoom their way onto the slide. And despite the fact that students may have learnt to use every animation, transition and graphic effect available in the software, the amount of “learning” in the traditional content-based sense is often very minimal.

And yet for teachers who are only just now starting to introduce PowerPoint into their classroom, or who have never gotten their students to present using PowerPoint at all (and surprisingly, there are still quite a few of these teachers) there remains a certain funky factor about PowerPoint that makes it easy for the whizz-bangery of the effects to overshadow the fact that very little actual communicating or learning is taking place.

But there’s no denying that the ability to present – to be able to stand in front of an audience and explain, persuade and influence them to your point of view – is an extremely valuable skill. And whether you like them or not, the use of persuasive visual tools like PowerPoint or Keynote is a highly valued ability in many organisations. If you can stand up in front of people and give a decent presentation it will take you a long way.

The problem of course is that when most kids do presentations they are big on the PowerPoint part, but not too good on the speaking part. In too many cases they stand there with their backs to the audience and just read the text on their slides, while the animation effects are completely over the top. They too-often mumble their way through the slides and put the audience to sleep. They produce boring presentations… and it’s a shame, because PowerPoint/Keynote is actually an amazingly powerful tool if you use it right. It’s just that most kids don’t get taught to use it right.

I particularly like the work of Cliff Atkinson and his Beyond Bullet Points approach. I tried a modified version of it with some kids earlier this year with stunningly effective results. The idea is simple… less is more… get the text off the slides. If there is no text (or at least minimal text) on the slides then kids can’t just read the slides to the audience. It’s a simple approach but it works really well. Atkinson actually has a whole methodology to what he does, starting with a outlined list in Word and then importing that into PowerPoint. This puts the main idea points as a heading at the top of each slide. You add the bullet pointy stuff that you would have normally added to the slide into the notes section instead (so the audience never sees it, but it gives the presenter a written list of what they plan to cover.) Then you find an image or photograph that expresses the idea you’re trying to get across, add it to the slide, and that’s basically it. I also don’t allow the kids to have cue cards… so no notes, no fumbling, no reading.

When the kids present their slideshow they cannot read the slides to us, as there is really nothing up on the screen to read. They don’t have cue cards in their hands so they don’t look down all the time and mumble. The imagery engages the audience surprisingly more than the text ever would, and the presenter has to talk to the audience because they find themselves needing to actually explain the point they are making. The presentation becomes much more conversational, and not just a rote speech with distracting animations. I was amazed at how well this works.

I have since been experimenting with this “no text” idea. I’ve done it several times now, with several groups, in several ways and I have been consistently seeing the best PowerPoint presentations I’ve seen in 15 years of teaching with technology. I am absolutely amazed at the results.

For example, I asked a grade 9/10 class last week to find a current Internet news article (within 14 days) on some aspect of technology that interests them, and then to come up with a short summary of the article and five questions that the article raises. They then turned this into an 8 slide PowerPoint file (title, article summary, five question slides, and a citation slide at the end). They had to do a quick 3-4 minute presentation to the class on their article. They could not use notes or cue cards. They had to present their answers to the five questions, but of course their answers were not written on the slides so they had to know what they were talking about. This group did some of the best presentations I’ve ever seen. They were confident, they spoke well, made eye contact, interacted with the group and covered their chosen topics with surprising clarity and depth of understanding. I think they surprised themselves too, and many gave a confident, polished presentation that went for more than the minimum 3-4 minutes..

Then I did something similar with a grade 11 class, only even more simplified… pick a topic that interests you and present it to the class. No notes. No text on your slides. Again, they were some of the best presentations I’ve seen in ages, and myself and the rest of the class were totally engaged with the presenters as they came up one by one to tell their stories. Surprisingly, before they gave their talks most of them insisted they were not at all keen to speak in front of their peers. But after it was done, most said that not only was not as scary as they thought it would be, but many actually quite enjoyed it.

Of course, through all of this I was hammering these kids about the idea that YOU are the magic, not the slideshow. I kept telling them that the slideshow was secondary, and they it was them that the audience was engaging with. I think that combined with my nagging about it, and these techniques of less text/no notes/lots of images, they actually learnt quite a lot about presenting with visual tools. I also spent a lot of time developing their skills in building animations and thinking about the ways that animation can be used to visually convey an idea in stages. Oh, and getting the text off the slides.

I think that PowerPoint deserves a lot of the criticism gets, because too many teachers/kids/presenters use it primarily as eye candy and visual effects instead of a powerful tool for assisting a presenter persuade and inform their audience. If you’re feeling jaded by PowerPoint, give this approach a go. Keep it simple and take the focus off the slides. I’m convinced it makes a massive difference to the way PowerPoint gets used, and once you get the idea that it’s not really about conveying subject content, but more about learning communication skills in front of an audience, then I think humble old PowerPoint can have some really positive learning benefits.  Give it a try and let me know how it works for you…

CC BY-SA 4.0 Making Powerful Points by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

4 Replies to “Making Powerful Points”

  1. Oh, the pain of a PowerPoint presentation with fly in “by letter” animation set with the typewriter sound effect. I think I’ve seen about 20 too many of those… PowerPoint is always a challenge for me because students always seem disappointed not to be able to use all those fun effects, but as you say, in the end they always turn out much better.

    You have some great advice here, I especially love slides with pictures only. Even as an adult I need to remember “death by PowerPoint” because even though I have been teaching for a while, I know I still rely on a comforting old PowerPoint when I present in front of my peers (we all know that teachers are the most critical of all audiences)…

  2. We are a bunch of volunteers and starting a brand new scheme in our community. Your web site provided us with useful info to work on. You’ve done an impressive job and our whole community can be thankful to you.

That's all well and good, but what do YOU think?