Teachers, Let's fix this PowerPoint thing

“PowerPoint doesn’t kill meetings. People kill meetings. But using PowerPoint is like having a loaded AK-47 on the table: You can do very bad things with it.”
Peter Norvig, Google Director of Research
I'm going to take a break from talking about games and project-based learning and focus instead today on design. Specifically, I want to talk about a tool that is in most of our boxes these days: presentation software. You know, PowerPoint, Google Presentation, Impress, Keynote, Empressr, etc. We all use it to teach. Many of us use it as a tool for student projects. Most of us love it and hate it. In most circumstances, presentations are fun to make, awkward to give, and terrible to watch. What's going on?

Show & Tell

The main key here is Show & Tell. The presentation tool shows and you tell.

My Show & Tell notes on my new murse.
I often illustrate this point by having my students access prior knowledge of Show & Tell with a think-pair-share. Students are encouraged to re-live their favorite Show & Tell memories while boiling down the process.

After students seem to have a good grasp of Show & Tell, I summarize for them by demonstrating. I do a Show & Tell presentation. Instead of showing what I'm telling about, though, I hold up written notes (in bullet-list format, of course). Students can't hold it in. They get indignant about how that is not Show & Tell. Some yell, "Where is it? You're supposed to show it!" Sometimes I have a very small picture of the item I place on the side of one of my pages of notes. This really frustrates the students. "I can barely see that!" shouts one student. One student even yelled, "That's just Tell & Tell! You're not showing anything!" I thought that that was very perceptive... brilliantly so. Kids are so darn smart.

Bonus History Lesson

License Some rights reserved by smohundro
Simply put, slide presentations are complex Show &Tell. The thing is, if you're trying to show something that you can't bring to your presentation, such as a building or a country or a massive chemical reaction, you need pictures. In the past, this was accomplished with everything from presentation boards to old-school slide projectors (pictured on the right). With the advent of personal computers, we (or, more specifically, developers like Dennis Austin and Thomas Rudkin) realized we could make software to replace the old slide deck, and we could present from our computers. Since text was still easier to add to computer-generated slides than pictures back in 1988, PowerPoint and similar applications morphed from Show & Tell to Tell & Tell, basically becoming an overpriced and over-powered whiteboard. Meanwhile, we humans still prefer Show & Tell to Tell & Tell, and as a result, we've all come to loathe PowerPoint presentations.

Some background

Typically, I don't talk about things as mundane as PowerPoint in my class. As I've mentioned in previous posts, my course focuses on projects and problem solving rather than specific apps or techniques, and I'm certainly not a fan of teaching the typing / office curriculum to secondary students. I have, however, had a lot of complaints. Colleagues often complain that when they assign students or groups of students to do a presentation project, the results are not what they had hoped for. I'm often told that "these students make bad PowerPoints." I typically reply that just about everyone makes bad PowerPoints. Either way, as the tech teacher, it is incumbent upon me to fix PowerPoint for all future generations. After having some students "make PowerPoint" presentations for me (they could actually use whatever slide software / app they were comfortable with), I quickly reached three conclusions:

  1. Many of us have created this problem ourselves.
  2. This is a design problem (that goes way beyond presentations).
  3. There are some very simple things we can all do in our classrooms to get better presentations out of our students (and ourselves).

Slideuments & Shooting Ourselves in the Foot

Many of us have created this problem ourselves. In an attempt to ensure students have enough "content" in their presentation (it must be rigorous), we come up with arbitrary format rules. One I've often seen (and even used myself before I knew better) is you must have at least three bullet points per slide. This inevitably leads to the creation of slideuments:
A document presented in the form of a presentation slide-deck. What should have been a handout or a PowerPoint deck has been turned into a hybrid that is neither suitable as a presentation tool nor as a take-home document.

This was originally coined by Garr Reynolds of Presentation Zen.
The speaker's slides were terrible. It felt like I was reading a slideument. (Urban Dictionary)

To avoid slideuments, remember the following:

One, don’t write everything you want to say on your PowerPoint slide. Not only is this visually boring, hard to read, and dull, it is redundant and makes you an extremely bad presenter, tempted to read your crappy slides to your audience. This will bore them to death and make them hate you…

  • Bulleted lists are worse
  • You’ll just read your bullets
  • Don’t think you’ll say more
  • You won’t.
Three, No more than six words… unless quoting.

To break out of the slidument rut, try requiring all students (and yourself) to use some variation on the the PechaKucha (20x20) technique, which is all visual... no text. As explained on the official Pecha-kucha.org website, "PechaKucha 20x20 is a simple presentation format where you show 20 images, each for 20 seconds. The images advance automatically and you talk along to the images."
  • 20 Slides
  • 20 Seconds Each
  • a well designed / chosen graphic on every slide.
As I said in my previous post (yes, on a completely different topic), "Reality doesn't favor thoroughbreds." The 20x20 trick probably doesn't fit most classrooms. Maybe 10x10 would work better. Perhaps we should forget the slide timings and just do the images. Perhaps you can use text as a visual element. One way or another, we need to stop putting our scripts on our slides.

Please, stop requiring your students to make slideuments! Try this for requirements on your next presentation assignment:

  • No more than six words on any slide
  • You should have more visuals than text
  • One well-chosen (fits what you're saying) picture or statement per slide.
  • Know your topic and talk to us about it.
  • Develop a handout with your notes on it to give your classmates (*If you must see bullet points to feel complete, add this requirement)

A Design Solution...

This is a design problem (that goes way beyond presentations). Fortunately, there are some very simple things we can all do in our classroom to get better presentations out of our students (and ourselves). PowerPoint and similar apps, after all, aren't bad tools. Unfortunately, they've become laden with amateurish design pitfalls from the stock templates and backgrounds (which have improved substantially) to predictable layouts and endless bullets. Don't get me wrong, this section is gravy. If you can get students to quit making slideuments, you will have substantially improved the quality of their presentations. Now let's look again at some design techniques to make our slides and everything else look better.

Supersize it

Teach students to supersize it. This trick seems so simple, yet it eludes so many of us. This is a trick you may have already been tricked into using if you use Pecha Kucha (see above) correctly. Notice, it says "PechaKucha 20x20 is a simple presentation format where you show 20 images, each for 20 seconds." It does not say you show 20 slides with images on. The assumption is that your image fills the whole slide... Thus, you've supersized it!

What you really want to do on your slide, whether you're working with text or images, is to just blow it up and fill the screen. Also, don't be afraid to crop out the unnecessary visual information in the process. This is not only awesome in slide decks but is also a great trick for posters, fliers, handouts, book covers, yearbook pages, and myriad other visual projects.

Embrace negative space

Resist the urge to fill space that is working for you...
Do not fear emptiness. Sometimes it can be your friend.

Often you have a graphic that does not fill the slide well. Perhaps it's a text element or small picture with no background or border. Don't fight it or try to add items to the page to make it busy. Just let the empty space draw your audience to the image. White space is it's own powerful graphic element. Use it in combination with the rule of thirds and you will be awesome!



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