PowerPoint Isn’t Always Your Friend

PowerPoint!For learning professionals, PowerPoint is a key technology. Trainers use it in live classes, and elearning developers either use it as a base or strive to surpass it. It’s a powerful tool. But is can also be powerfully bad. Stunningly effective case in point: the Gettysburg Address in PowerPoint (original text here). Why does this fail? Why is it so much less affecting and powerful than Lincoln’s original speech? The tech is better; shouldn’t the message be more effectively delivered?

The short answer: the message is more important than the tech. Too many people let the technology drive their message. Those of us in the learning professions are guilty of this as well, both in elearning and in live classes. I’ll tackle elearning in a future post.

PowerPoint works well for a large variety of messages, but you have to break free from the templates. It requires looking at the space on a slide in a new way. PowerPoint has (maybe inadvertently) trained us to use it as speaker’s notes – a bulleted synopsis of our ideas. But speaker’s notes are boring for an audience. And if your slides tell people everything they need to know about what you are going to say, why do you need to show up at all?

I think PowerPoint should help keep the focus on the human presenter. To that end, here are:

Jasmine’s Rules for PowerPoint

Do not use the built-in styles or themes. Millions of people use those themes. You’re unique, and your slides should reflect that. Choose a simple, solid color, gradient or texture background. Some presentation experts recommend only light-color background, but either light or dark backgrounds can work well – it just depends on the mood you want to evoke.

Go bold. Fill the screen with an image. Use 96 pt font. Lose the bullets, and put the single most important idea (six words or less) for that slide in a large, clean font.

Show instead of telling. Get creative with how you display your ideas and information. It takes some determination and time to develop a your ability to display things visually instead of resorting to bullet points, particularly when you don’t have the natural knack for it. Pay attention to high-quality design produced by others, and don’t be afraid to adapt their ideas to your work.

My work in PowerPoint has dramatically evolved, and I have to give most the credit to others who go there before me. Below are some of the folks that have inspired me to click Layout >> Blank every time I start a presentation.

Nancy Duarte: Worked on An Inconvenient Truth, among other projects. The TEDx talk at this link is a must-watch for anyone interested in improving their presentations.

Garr Reynolds: Writes the Presentation Zen blog. He’s an excellent source to help you start thinking about the visual design of presentations and especially getting rid of the extraneous things that distract attention from you.

Edward Tufte: Tufte was describing how to create infographics long before they became popular linkbait. An artist and designer, Tufte has produced the seminal references on displaying data in an understandable format. Of particular interest for this blog is his long-form essay on how PowerPoint can change your message in subtle ways.


Posted on September 30, 2011, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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