Zen and the Scourge of PowerPoint Monotony

25 Feb

Pliers

Is there a Bolt Wrench in your Toolbox?

OK, I’m showing my age here by beginning this post with an allusion to a popular book from my earlier days.  In case you’re not familiar with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig’s 1974 novel, here’s my microsummary:  Don’t use pliers to loosen a bolt.  (See picture at right: the threads on the pliers are going to round off the edges on the bolt and then the thing will never come loose.) Pliers are not designed for bolts.

What does this have to do with PowerPoint? And why might a wonderful book by Garr Reynolds on PPT design be titled Presentation Zen?

Because design informs use.  This may have been obvious all along to many of you but it was definitely an “aha” moment for me.  PPT is not optimal  for text.  Now  I see it: lots of text in a presentation strips the energy out of an audience as fast as I can say, “Hand me the pliers.”

Exhibit A (below) – Please Review:

Future goals

Imagine you have just seen this slide broadcast at a presentation on teaching centers.  You’re sitting in a darkened room in the back row listening to me paraphrase the details, maybe even the core concepts, of this slide to you.

Point taken?  Better to take advantage of the visual potential of PPT to make presentations engaging and memorable.

Specifically, instead of slideumentation (more on that later) here’s what I’m striving for in my PPT presentations:

  • One compelling image per slide
  • One pithy declarative sentence to head each slide
  • As little additional text as is absolutely necessary

And specifically, here’s what the process has been like for me so far:

  1. Finding images is lots of fun.   It’s very satisfying to find a photo that perfectly captures the tone or meaning of your main point.  You know it when you see it.
  2. Creating your own images is possible even if you’re not especially artistic.
  3. Both can be  real time sinks if you’re not careful.  Christina Petersen, a colleague, decides how much time she can devote to photo hunting and sets the alarm on her cell phone.
  4. Understanding copyright restrictions and fair use is complicated.  (You’ll find some excellent resources in the handout I’ve noted in the closing section of this post.)

Forcing myself to write sentence headers for slides has clarified my thinking.

Exhibit B – Please review re-tooled “Future Goals” slide (below):

Even Better

Now, imagine yourself back in that last row of the darkened room.  Interested?

Of course it can be a lot of work to drill down to a key message for every slide and I’ve definitely defaulted to a few headers not much better than  “Here’s Part II”.   But overall, I’m enjoying the effort it takes and the results I’m seeing.

Exhibit C – Please Review, Tools Have Their Distinct Uses (below):

As you might guess, PPT presentations of this sort printed  six slides to a page and handed out are not meant to provide a record of your remarks as a speaker or teacher. But, according to Reynolds, the “slideumentation” that packed words onto pages is neither an effective record of remarks nor an effective reminder of main ideas when an audience member returns to printed slides a week or month or year later.  Rather, accompanying materials  need to take a different form  because they serve a different purpose during and after a presentation. Rather than restating (and often inadvertently restricting) a presentation, my handouts now embrace Reynolds’ advice to summarize key points and provide supplemental reading that participants can add to during the presentation and consult for further thinking in the days, weeks, months beyond the presentation.

Here’s an example from of a handout that could accompany the PPT version of this blog:

Screen Shot 2013-02-25 at 18.15.17

One last connection between motorcycles and PowerPoint.   Both are made for power.  And as a long time rider  (OK, i t’s only a moped, but the point is the same) I can attest that it matters how you handle it.

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One Response to “Zen and the Scourge of PowerPoint Monotony”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Sticky Learning and Teaching – Planning with SUCCESS in Mind | Techniques in Learning & Teaching - 16 July 2013

    […] Rethinking the Design of Presentation Slides […]

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