Nice message, shame about the presentation

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PowerPoint, as its name suggests, is a powerful tool. And as with other powerful tools, things can go horribly wrong if you don’t know how to use it.

I’m not talking about the basic functions here; I’m assuming that the presenter knows enough of the nuts and bolts to at least put up the words and pictures that they want to.

But the fact is, there are many ways to ruin a presentation. A monotone delivery, lack of practice beforehand, dull and boring content… But perhaps the most common way to ring the death-knell over your presentation is to have too many words on the screen.

Yes, people are still doing this, even today.

This raises three interesting questions: what’s so bad about it? why do people put together presentations in this way? and what can be done to solve the problem?

A neat answer to the first question is encapsulated in the Australian educationalist John Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory. This might sound like a scary name, but it makes a very simple point: we can listen or we can read words, but we can’t do both. (This has big implications for education as a whole, not just presentations.)

We’ve all been in presentations where the speaker has a screed of words on the slide and proceeds to read through them, either word for word or with minimal variation.

This has the effect of scrambling our brains while we try to divide our attention between listening and reading – and doing neither very well. It’s also a pain to sit through for one slide, let alone a whole presentation.

Second question: why do people do it? Ignorance of research and theories such as Mr Sweller’s has been suggested. If you don’t know about these findings, you might think you’re actually being helpful by reading what’s on the screen, thinking you’re reinforcing the message. But as we’ve seen, the opposite is the case.

Another reason could be laziness: this can range from not bothering to make the presentation more interesting, to not picturing the effect on the audience.

But whatever the reason, having too many words on screen and reading them aloud is a very bad combination. So what’s the solution?

One answer is, not surprisingly, to cut down the number of words. PowerPoint has a whole range of other options, including visuals, diagrams and even different colours for words. Use them; think about how they could help cut down or eliminate big chunks of text.

Having few words on screen allows you to react to or expand on them, and even make the presentation more interactive by asking questions. It’s easy to have two or three words up there and talk around them without losing the audience.

Sometimes, it can be argued, you need to have lots of words on screen: e.g. legal phrasing where every word is vital, for instance.

If it really is essential to do this, Cognitive Load Theory has a simple way to resolve the problem: just stay silent while the audience reads them.

By David Vickery


Published On: 19th Jun 2009

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