I feel sorry for PowerPoint, the butt of so many jokes and unloved by so many conference delegates and students. It's so easy to blame the tool for our own shortcomings and most cases of the famous death by PowerPoint are due to users' lack of ability to exploit the functions available in the tool. Some people proudly announce that they have not prepared any slides for their talk and I often sense a murmur of approval from the audience glad to find someone who dares to go back to basics. The problem is that a talk without any visual support demands tight structure and considerable rhetorical skill and few speakers who decide to go "unplugged" realise this. I've heard many such presentations that ramble from one anecdote to another and I've completely lost the thread, if there is any, after five minutes. I retire gratefully into my laptop and attend to other matters while the presentation wanders off into the fog. Had the presenter used even a few slides they might have been able to communicate some kind of structure but without it we're lost. Unless of course the speaker is a true orator.
An article in Times Higher Education, Learning to live without PowerPoint, makes the case for researchers freeing themselves of their digital shackles and presenting their findings unplugged. The problem is that when your slides are your presentation and you simply read the text slide by slide any technical problem like a faulty projector means disaster.
When we are training our PhD students in the art of presentation, are we giving them the necessary advice – the confidence – that will allow them to avoid an addiction to PowerPoint and ensure that they may experiment with using it less or not at all? At the very least are we making sure they are adequately prepared to still deliver a meaningful presentation even when the computer stops talking to the projector?
PowerPoint can give many speakers a false sense of security if they use the slideshow as a script. Many researchers cram enormous amounts of text or data onto each slide so that the audience focuses all attention on trying to decipher your information overload instead of listening to the speaker. You may have wonderful graphs in your research article but in a presentation try to simplify the graphics and highlight the most important points. Those who want the details can read the article later; the aim of the presentation is to raise interest in your research.What you have to say should preferebly be there in your head or on a piece of paper in the form of bullet points or a mindmap. The slides simply reinforce your message and provide structure through appropriate images and keywords. In this way it is still possible to give the presentation if the technology fails even if it will lack the attention-grabbing features that a good slideshow can provide. If used wisely a slideshow is still a highly effective tool to getting your message across but sadly most people only use a fraction of the tool's potential. For tips on how to get the best out of PowerPoint have a look at Jonathan Wylie's post, PowerPoint Myths: Busted!
However there are more subtle agruments against presentation tools like PowerPoint. Andrew Smith wrote an interesting article a while back in the Guardian, How PowerPoint is killing critical thought, arguing that the pedagogy of the presentation comes from the business world. The classic presentation full of bullet points is a way of leading a customer through the sales pitch and convincing them to buy rather than inviting an open discussion. PowerPoint encourages a process of persuasion rather than dialogue.
Bullet points enforce a rigidly hierarchical authority, which has not necessarily been earned. One either accepts them in toto, or not at all. And by the time any faulty logic is identified, the screen has been replaced by a new one as the speaker breezes on, safe in the knowledge that yet another waits in the wings. With everyone focused on screens, no one – least of all the speaker – is internalising the argument in a way that tests its strength.
Slides with convincing bullet-points are hard to argue against and a potential dialogue is turned into one-way communication. Many advocate using images to accompany your talk with an absolute minimum of text. I must admit I have cut down on the text content in my slideshows and prefer now to have interesting photos plus a few keywords and talk around them.
However I think there is more to this problem than simply blaming the presentation tool. The setting, usually a lecture theatre or a classroom with people sitting in rows, is for me the real barrier to dialogue It's simply not a good place to start a discussion, not matter whether the speaker uses Powerpoint or not. Another factor is tradition; if everyone is in lecture mode then it will be one-way communication and few in the audience will dare to speak out of turn or disturb the speaker's flow. The lecture is an academic tradition that is proving extremely hard to break. I'm sure that PowerPoint can be used in more imaginative ways in new settings that are more conducive to dialogue. Don't shoot the piano player.