How not to use Power Point.
By Michael Coalson
I was sitting in a symposium in my home town a while back and as I sat through briefing after briefing, each of which had promised to be interesting and informative, but wasn’t, a line from the movie Cool Hand Luke came to mind: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
Why the failure? The authors were bright, articulate, and knew their work, but they only thought about the briefing from the presenter’s standpoint. People in the audience were struggling as each speaker talked at and around and about his work, but didn’t really have a message, a “take away.”
They appeared to think their message was simply, “By golly, my work is very complicated, and I’m a smart guy to be working on something like this.” They didn’t really think that way, of course, but that was certainly the message that came across. And you know what? The way most of the speakers used PowerPoint made their presentation worse rather than better.
Each of presenter put far too much information on his charts. They had flow charts and equations and tiny little graphs which had been excerpted from other briefings and reports. They had logos both well known and obscure. They had common and uncommon abbreviations and acronyms.
There were integral equations and large boxes containing smaller boxes and each communicating through multicolored, double-headed arrows—and not a word about what the message was, not a word about how each one was important.
Typically the author’s narrative did not flow from one figure on the chart to another. Many figures on each chart were not even mentioned by the speaker.
We learn best when a visual message and a spoken message support each other. It helps us to learn, for instance, when a professor writes at the board and talks about what he is writing. If there is any dissonance between the narrative and the writing on the board, learning would not be enhanced, but diminished, perhaps greatly so.
A good presentation amplifies, clarifies, or emphasizes what is to be learned. Sometimes it even entertains. Any extraneous writing or any superfluous comment can only make learning more difficult.
Yet so many presentations seem to be cluttered nowadays. Clutter often appears as too much information on a chart, much of which has nothing to do with the essential message. Speakers may talk about some of the information on the chart, but not all of it.
I suggest to you that the briefers in the symposium I attended had little interest in communicating. Perhaps they just wanted to be listed on the symposium program.
Another phenomenon that made the briefing message unclear is that the projected figures were not sharp. Lines which are clear to the eye when viewed on a computer monitor from 15 inches away are much less clear when enlarged and projected to a screen 20 to 30 feet and viewed from the audience another 20 to 30 feet away.
The projector lens and the lens of the human eye cause the enlarged figure to lose sharpness which it appears to have on the computer monitor. Lines which were sharp on the monitor screen become less sharp on the projector screen. Even colors lose their clarity.
It is best to omit figures and equations that are unnecessary to the message; likely they can’t be read anyway, especially if they are small. So, if they are not going to be discussed and they can’t be read, why include them in your slides? If the figures are unclear and not briefed anyway all they add is dissonance.
The organization of most briefings is kind of random. All briefings should have a slide right after the title slide that tells what the purpose of the briefing is: To Describe Work Done to Accomplish XYZ, To Ask for a Decision on XYZ, To Present Conclusions Reached from Studying XYZ, …etc. Make it clear what the purpose of your briefing is.
The second slide should outline the major sections of the briefing. The next to last slide should deliver a summary. We learn by repetition, so it helps the audience remember your key points if you recapitulate the information in your briefing.
Of course, too much repetition in a presentation will annoy the people in your audience.
The last slide can contain a conclusion or a recommendation. If you take this approach to organizing your briefing it will help keep you focused, help keep you ‘on message’ and assure your audience that you have specific reasons for telling them about your work.
The old adage of briefing used to be: “Tell ’em what you are going to tell ’em; tell ’em; and then tell ’em what you told ’em.” That is still a good approach to briefing.