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Some Problems with PowerPoint 

By Ginny Stibolt

There has been an ongoing debate about the use, overuse, and misuse of Microsoft's PowerPoint.  In '97 Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun MicroSystems, banned PowerPoint from his company saying that it was a huge waste of productivity.  On the other hand, PowerPoint presentations have become an expected part of training and presentations.  Often PowerPoint slides are required as part of a course design and textbooks quite often come with generic PowerPoints for instructors to use.

So what are the problems with PowerPoint and what can you do about them?

1) Poorly designed slides can detract from even the best oral presentation.
I'm sure you've suffered through presentations where:

  • the slides have too much text or a distracting background making them difficult to read,

  • the slides are simply bullet points -- really boring,

  • the slides look like they've been recycled from several other presentations, 

  • the slides have no unifying look,

  • there are distracting transitions between the slides, 

  • the slides do not follow or enhance the speaker's topic.

2) When poorly used, even the best-designed slides can be deadly.
I'm also sure you've had the misfortune of being on the receiving end of presentations or training sessions where the presenter reads the bullet points and text of the slides to you.  In reality most presentations would be greatly enhanced if the speaker kept those bullets for himself on 3x5 cards (Remember those?) and spoke to the audience and not to the slides.  It's been said that bullets can kill a presentation.

Plus, if the slides are provided as handouts, then people have a reason to tune it out - they can read it later themselves.  There is very little learning going on here.

The slides are not the presentation; they are just a tool for a knowledgeable and engaging presenter.

3) PowerPoint presentations use a huge amount of memory.
While this is not nearly the problem that it used to be when memory was more limited, it's still important not to carry over a lot of redundant information. So take the time to organize your presentations so they are ready for the next time. You can also store previously done presentations as pdf files for later reference.

Become an engaging presenter

In previous a training column, I covered ways to design training materials to accommodate people with different learning styles. When students can see and listen to information, you have increased the chances of their understanding the topic.  BUT, and this is a big but, they must be engaged in the presentation and not napping, playing with their smart phone. Gosh, maybe they'd actually have to tune in and actually think of a question. Maybe they'd take notes, which is another way many people learn.

The presenter should know the topic and have a clear message that has been designed for the audience.  One size does NOT fit all audiences - canned presentations rarely work well. The slides should be used to enhance the discussion by illustrating a point or presenting results, statistics, or other information.  The slides alone should not represent all of the material.  The PowerPoint slides will have virtually no value without the presenter. It will be just a series of unexplained images.

Preparing your remarks

Moving from portrait to landscape orientation.
Slides are a visual medium-they should look more like a billboard or a TV ad than a Word document.  With a document, your eye travels down the page and the bullets help to organize and define the ideas.  But if you look at any (other) visual medium, you'll not find the space divvied up in this way.  You are making a mistake if you simply transfer your Word document's bullets over to PowerPoint slides.  Your brain works differently when seeing a visually oriented image.  Good design incorporates these ideas, but I won't cover any more of it here.  It's a subject that could take more than one semester to cover.

This billboard has a specific message that can be seen and understood in a second.
Your PowerPoint slides should be easy to see from the back of the room.

The slides should serve to illustrate your talk, so create you notes for each slide and practice your talk several times. It's best to find out a little about your specific audience so you can include items that relate specifically to the location or add interesting local information. Surprise your audience; don't bore them. 

Most important, have fun. If you're enjoying yourself, the audience will also have fun. Good luck on your PowerPoint journey to better presentations.

~ ~ ~ 

There have been myriad articles written about the use and misuse of PowerPoints. Some thought-provoking ones are listed on the MarketingProfs website. You'll need to sign up, but it's free. Many of these articles were written by Cliff Atkinson, who has strong feelings on PowerPoint and has created online courses to tutor you in better presentations:

This article was originally published on Digital Harbor On-line in 2004 and was updated in 2014.

Ginny Stibolt (You may not repost this article, but you may quote parts of it with a link back to this page. 
Ginny has years of teaching experience from seventh grade through college.  She's also owned three technology companies and has more than 20 years experience with computers and websites.)

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