Having vented against delinquent teachers in the audience and mix-ups and mishaps by organisers, it’s now time to turn attention to that poor person who has to stand in front of a crowd of more strangers than expected who are most likely disgruntled about losing their free time for an ‘irrelevant’ session. Yes, time to take a bite out of the presenters….
(Please note: this should all be taken tongue-in-cheek rather than seriously. Don’t forget I occasionally present sessions myself and at some point have been guilty of some of the things mentioned in this post… so there).
Let me start (or continue as this is the third paragraph) with a confession. I ask that you do not judge or ridicule but that you hear me out. You see, the thing is….
…I actually like using PowerPoint…
There we are - I said it! PowerPoint is one of my favourite software tools to use. Sure, I’ve flirted with Prezi and other web 2.0 seductresses from time to time, but I keep coming back to good old PowerPoint asking for forgiveness. I use it as a backdrop when doing workshops and presentations, I use it in class to present and revise grammar and vocabulary and I use it to make presentations for my school website. I dabble with different themes, animations and transitions and embed images, videos and sound files to supplement the text.
And yet I find PowerPoint has a bit of a bad reputation amongst conference goers and the public at large. We hear of “Death by PowerPoint” as poor helpless teachers, having already lost a Saturday off, are subjected to slide after slide of uninspiring text, charts and statistics. It’s so bad, some of them have no recourse but to look at their mobile phones or chat to the people around them in order to avoid the cold creeping hand of PowerPoint Death. When the life-threatening danger has passed, out-dated clip art and overuse of bullet points and the Comic Sans MS font become the target of ridicule.
But it’s not really a PowerPoint problem, is it? It’s simply poor/deadly use of a simple tool. After all, a cricket bat may be used to play a game invoking rose-tinted memories of fine English gentlemen relaxing in the village green on a Sunday afternoon or it may be used rather more bluntly to bludgeon someone to death. Conversely, a machete could be lethally used to hack someone to pieces but it may also be a valuable device to cut your way through dense tracks of jungle in a bid for survival.
In the case of PowerPoint, it is a handful of presenters who are to blame as they load their slides with bullet-pointed text summarising quite specific academic research and proceed to read it to us for an hour. It’s not the software, it’s not the content - it’s the presentation itself that is the problem.
Nor is it just a matter of design. One conference I attended at some unspecified point in the past featured a speaker who projected a very slick and visually appealing slideshow: the theme used looked very professional and left ample room for the content; the images selected were clear and relevant; and the slides were not overloaded with text. However, the presentation itself was poor. At times, the presenter did not seem to know what was coming on the next slide and frequently spent long pauses shuffling through notes. We were then informed that the next few slides would show quotes from participants in a research programme. “Don’t worry,” came the assurance. “I won’t read it all out to you. I’ll give you a few moments to view the comments yourselves.” That sounded promising but then the slide appeared with a photo to represent the person the quote had come from along with a paragraph of about ten lines… and then it was gone as the presenter clicked on the the next slide. And then the next one! Now, people can read quietly faster than someone can read aloud but nobody can read that fast! At first, I tried not to show any reaction as that fear of looking like the simpleton who couldn’t keep up kicked in. However, murmurs of discontent soon rippled round the crowd and the presenter lost the audience after that.
At the same event, another presenter appeared with a much more basic PowerPoint: no theme, just a white background; Comic Sans MS in a variety of bright colours; and a selection of clip art that suggested use of Windows 95. But crucially, this time the bullet points were concise and relevant and the speaker was informative, engaging and interesting. There was hardly a mobile phone in sight and barely a bored puff to be heard.
At the end of the day, we should remember what we always hear about technology in the classroom - it’s not the tool itself that teaches, presents, engages (or bores); it’s how it is put to use and who puts it to use that makes the difference. If you’ve got something interesting to say, people will listen. If you’ve got something to read or got something that you’ve forgotten the contents of, people are going to switch off.