PowerPoint: when enough is enough

by Sarah Luna

A few days ago, I was sent an article called “Why We Hate PowerPoints—and how to fix them”. Anyone who has suffered through an awful PowerPoint (high school students and college students in particular) knows the mind-numbing and soporific effects they often produce. Two of my classes give me thrice-weekly proof. What I wasn’t aware of before reading this article was that PowerPoints are being used in the military as part of the decision-making process. Think about that for a second–horribly designed slides and asinine presentations are impacting military decisions.

“Senior officers say the program [PowerPoint] does come in handy when the goal is not imparting information, as in briefings for reporters.”  Wow.

PowerPoint destroys thought.  I could go into greater detail about why I hate PowerPoint, but this essay sums it up more scathingly than I could.

Returning to the Times article, the author attempts to give useful advice for those of us faced with an impending presentation. She writes:

Great presenters employ the basic narrative techniques used throughout history to connect with audiences and move them to action and new understanding. The presentations that work are not the ones with the most data or the most elaborate charts and graphs; the winners are those with the most compelling and convincing narratives.

Brilliant. Apparently a good presenter needs to have something important to say. Shouldn’t that be a given? Now how do I fix my PowerPoint?

Unfortunately, that’s all the author thought we needed to be first rate presenters. This is where I step in with my own PowerPoint experience and expertise. Serendipitously, I am in the process of preparing a PowerPoint for my lab meeting this week. As a victim of numerous clipart-ridden, bullet-pointed slides, I refuse to subject any other human to such torture.

So how do you make a ridiculously awesome PowerPoint?

The most important rule ever: Have something to say. The presentation is about you and what you have to say. You should be able to present all of your material without slides. Slides are icing.

Most people don’t get past that crucial step. Most people don’t think about the logical progression of their argument. Or the big picture they’re trying to describe. Or how all of their concepts fit together. They simply type some bullets on some slides and read them verbatim to a glazed-over audience.

But let’s assume the best and say that you have something really valuable to share. You want your PowerPoint to enhance your wonderful message. What do you do?

Eliminate these from your PowerPoints forever*:

  1. Bullets. No bullets. None. Bullets kill the thought process. You don’t think in bullet points–why would you want to present in them?
  2. Ready made layouts. These force you to fit your original and unique concepts around general and clichéd formats. Boring.
  3. Clipart. Seeing clipart in a presentation means it was created in the 90’s and the information is most likely obsolete. Sadly, I watch a clipart-ridden presentation three times a week.

*I have seen great presentations that include these items, but they are the exception, not the rule.

Add these to your PowerPoints:

  1. White space. Give the eyes room to focus.
  2. Complete, coherent thoughts. Take the time to craft your concepts.
  3. Comprehension checks. Add in a recap slide every so often get everyone back on the same page. Sometimes I get so caught up in the details that I forget the presenter’s main argument.

Finally, if you want PowerPoint to be your craft, read about good design. I personally recommend Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds (and his blog, too). If you have access to the A&M libraries, you can access the entire book free of charge. If not, it’s well worth the $23 on Amazon.

The resources exist for making excellent presentations. Let’s pass them along and start the generation of meaningful information transfer.