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Powerpoint - It Just Doesn'T Work
There's Ivy League evidence
It's five years since Edward Tufte, Professor Emeritus at Yale declared 'Power corrupts, PowerPoint corrupts absolutely!' in his revolutionary essay “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint.” In this, Tufte built on the earlier work of Professor John Sweller at the University of New South Wales. But despite such academic research and regardless of bored audiences, few presenters seem to be learning to do anything differently. So what are these academics saying?
Sweller formulated and developed the Cognitive Load Theory, “to provide guidelines intended to assist in the presentation of information in a manner that encourages learner activities that optimize intellectual performance." What this theory shows is that people are over-loaded if they have to multi-task when they're absorbing information. The brain doesn't work like that, and the easiest example is if you're trying to have a conversation in a foreign language in which you are not fully proficient. You're endeavouring to make your point but your brain is busy translating what's being said and evaluating it at the same time. It's exhausting, and it's similar when information is communicated both visually and aurally.
In a presentation scenario, whether it's the board-room or the lecture theatre, the research shows that the human brain processes and retains more information if it is digested in either its verbal or its written form, but not through both at the same time. As soon as you put your bullet-points up on the screen, the audience will stop listening to what you're saying while they read. The human brain is not designed to read and listen at the same time. Think of Sky News or BBC News 24: it's mentally challenging to listen to the reporter and catch up on the ticker-tape headlines at the foot of the screen, when they are competing for your attention.
The purpose of a presentation
But before we consider the alternative options, let's go back to basics and ask a fundamental question. Why make a presentation, anyway? Many presentations are simply the dissemination of information - a function much better performed by the system designed for that purpose - Information Technology! Use the intranet, send an email, or stick an announcement on the notice board by the coffee machine.
Change the mindset
There is only one reason to make a presentation, and that is to change the mindset of the audience. Whether you're launching a new product, pitching to the bank manager or outlining the impact of new Health & Safety legislation, your aim is that your audience will now either do things differently, or do different things. A presentation is dynamic. You are interacting with the minds of your audience. Think of how Duarte Design developed Al Gore's presentation: An Inconvenient Truth, and you get the picture.
If it's a financial presentation that you have to make, don't bother if nothing has changed and nothing is expected to change in the future. What purpose would there be unless you want people to act on the information that you're giving them?
At the heart of whatever it is that you have to say is what you want people to do with the message you're delivering. You need to identify exactly what it is that you want done differently, and the underlying “Why,” and the specifics of the “How.” Then tell your story, and illustrate it in a way that reinforces your message.
Don't fire up the computer yet, because you need to start by getting everything on the table and decide what you'll keep in and what you'll discard. For this part of the process, I like to work on a flip-chart pad in different coloured felt tips; some people cover the wall with post-it notes. You need to be able to see all the relevant points and move topics around and cluster them in groups. You simply can't do that if you start with a blank PowerPoint slide.
Then you structure your piece into a logical sequence and, finally, write your bullet points, because bullet points make excellent speaker support.
Speaker support is not audience support
As a speaker, you're a story-teller and you're going to have a conversation with your audience. To keep you on track (unless you're a very accomplished speaker,) you'll need notes of the points that you want to make, logically ordered. This is what most people produce, in the form of bullet-pointed slides; don't do that. Put your bullet-point notes on cue cards.
Most PowerPoint (or Keynote) presentations can be hugely improved simply by removing the bullet points from the screen and putting them on cue-cards in the speaker's hand. Why would you want to share your speaker-notes with your audience? What goes on the screen should be whatever illustrates the story you are telling. Your words stimulate the audience rationally; your illustrations will stimulate them emotionally.
It's all about arrows, not bullets. Audiences don't want to be splattered with the buck-shot of random data; they want the speaker to lead them with clear and definite arrows from A to B. Poor speakers deliver a commentary on what's on the screen but it should be the other way around. What's on the screen should be illustrating what the speaker is talking about.
If your bullet points are speaker support and your audience support is largely illustrative, then neither will do the job as an effective handout. However, it's not very difficult to combine the words and pictures to create a free-standing document that tells the whole story. Giving people a PowerPoint document is asking them to unravel what you're trying to put across. Write it in your own words: that way they'll get the message.
There are currently half-a-dozen of us around the world writing about this and training people to create great presentations in a much more dynamic and effective style. In addition to the two academics mentioned earlier there's Garr Reynolds in Japan, Cliff Atkinson in Los Angeles, Nancy Duarte in Mountain View, California and there's me down here in Tunbridge Wells.
We all preach the same message: Let your voice tell the story in a conversation with your audience, and let the screen illustrate what you're saying. That way PowerPoint is a vehicle that supports your message and supports the audience rather than distracts them from what you're saying.
The harsh fact is that the way most people use it - PowerPoint doesn't work.
What's your opinion?