PowerPoint Isn’t the Problem

You sit there…waiting for a presentation to start. You see the speaker clicking away on their laptop when suddenly the image of a title slide appears on the screen behind them. It hits you, another slide deck to sit through. Does this thought bring with it a sense of dread?…Why?

Title slide being too real

From the boardroom to the classroom PowerPoint is used extensively in giving presentations designed to share information. While it has the potential to serve as a multimedia element designed to support the message shared in the talk, it unfortunately has turned into a set of notecards on which speakers remain heavily dependent.

One of the most outspoken critics of PowerPoint is Edward Tufte, a household name in information design. He has gone as far to say that “PowerPoint is evil” and that it is “making us stupid” (Penciner, 2013, p.109). While these opinions are bordering on hyperbole, he does raise other concerns worth noting. Two such notable ideas are: bullet points get in the way of creating schema and that audiences finish reading the slide before the speaker is finished, so what’s the point? While these two criticisms carry some weight, it is important to realize that they are concerning how PowerPoint is being used rather than the tool itself.

This differentiation is significant because at its core, PowerPoint can serve as a form of multimedia support to help elevate a presenter’s message. The education psychologist Richard Mayer helps shed light on the importance of this idea by explaining: “Multimedia learning promotes acquisition, retention, and transfer of information” and “meaningful learning occurs when learning engages in appropriate verbal and visuospatial thinking” (Penciner, 2013, p.110). This happens because of the dual code nature of learning in which information presented in visual and verbal forms concurrently can increase comprehension over either presented individually. To tap into this dual coding, however, each source of information needs to be deciphered in different parts of the brain. So, if an audience is reading a large amount of text presented on a slide while a speaker is talking, those two elements are competing for access to the verbal channel.

Two verbal sources will compete for the same learning channel, while combining a visual and verbal element can be dual coded and enhance learning

Given this understanding of the dual code nature of learning it becomes clear why Tufte takes issue with an audience reading through a slide while a presenter is speaking. This begins to make even more sense when we explore the anatomy of a typical slide (note the text has been replace with gibberish to draw the focus to structure and layout rather than the meaning of the text):

Gibberish slide with typical presentation structure

Often the slide’s title gives away the conclusion, rather than leading the audience to reach it through the information. Second, the “visual” is dominated by text. If this is presented altogether, the audience begins to read ahead of the speaker. Bullet points do often hinder the creation of schema and the connection of ideas, and if subpoints are used, they often become small and hard to read. Finally, the words are thrown onto a generic design template, with little to no consideration of its connection to the message.

A Better Way

If we a take a more holistic view of a presentation and realize that the majority of the text will be covered by the speaker, we can then see the potential for slides to take on a more visual form to help draw out important points from the talk. Not that text can’t be included, but we need to be wary of creating a presentation that resembles a written handout. We need to make sure that we developed a strong understanding of our specific message. We then then need to realize that the medium chosen has several tools to create an endless combination of possibilities. This allows us to create slides that are particularly catered to our use case. Finally, we need to intentionally design our presentations considering how we can visually represent the important aspects of the information.

(*bold text in previous paragraph correlates with the first three phases of my Intentional Design Model for Digital Communications discussed in my previous article: https://britainwillcock.medium.com/intentionally-designing-your-digital-communications-8f8bc9cad543)

For my graduate school capstone project I created a PowerPoint presentation that exemplifies these ideas. While the conclusion and subsections have been omitted, you can get a good sense of these ideas by viewing the main through-line slides below.

Storyboard of main presentation through-line

The design revolves around how we think, helping to put the audience’s perspective at the center. For example, the slide transitions move along a path, using transitions that move that way, that changes direction depending on the subject matter. When ideas are problematic the movement goes right to left, a direction that often seems “wrong” in the western world. In contrast, when the model is presented it moves up from the previous line to establish a new normal, and when the concepts of application are presented, the presentation moves left to right. This direction feels positive due to the tendency to read in that direction.

The slides are visually dominant, supporting the spoken text and our dual coding nature. When there is text, it is minimal, and never presented all at once. There is an ongoing visual theme of an orange line that is present on all of the main slides. This emphasizes the “Building Connection” idea presented from the first slide. This line is connected with nodes that appear as each new subject is presented and the presentation changes direction. Since all of the applications of the model occur on virtual platforms, the entry points to all of these examples visually start at a computer desk to help set the context.

The color palette was chosen specifically to mix traditional “business colors” in the blues with more energizing colors in the orange and yellow.

Intentional color palette to support themes and increase accessibility

These support the idea of bringing new energy to older models and ideas. You’ll notice to help build the connection between mediums the same color scheme has been used in this document. The choice of colors was also specific in that there is a high enough contrast between each color, especially between the right and left sides, that the presentation is accessible to anyone with a colorblindness. This helps to remove barriers to the information and practice empathy in the design.

Making More Effective PowerPoint Presentations

The next time you need to build a slide deck consider the following ideas to get the most out of the process:

Make it Visual: Keep the presentation itself visually dominant. See it as a visual support for the information you are sharing. Some text is ok, just don’t make it the main attraction.

Make it Intentional: Choose visual elements that connect to the core of your message. Consider what the key takeaway is and come up with a visual that speaks to it.

Design Thinking: Remember that this is essentially a deliverable so aesthetics count. Choose a color scheme that works with your context and lean on it when making a visual decision.

Use Movement: Movement helps guide eye and appeals to shorter attention spans. For example, if you do need to share multiple points on a single slide, consider having them appear one at a time. This draws the focus on the point you’re making and doesn’t allow the audience to read ahead.

Supporting Mediums: If your presentation feels like it needs to share a lot of text consider making a supplemental handout that could be distributed to the audience, allowing them to read in their own time. Don’t underestimate interactive moments as well, ask questions, keep from being entirely stuck to your screen.

Britain Willcock is an information designer, communication strategist, and all-around connection builder. He holds two Master’s degrees, an M.F.A. in Acting (Regent University) and a M.S. in Information Design and Strategy in Communication with Data (Northwestern University). His passion lies in shaping communications to better align with how we think, understand, and learn in order to build connections between people, as well as people and ideas.

Reference:

Penciner, R. (2013). Does PowerPoint enhance learning? Canadian Journal of Emergency Medicine, 15(2), 109–112. doi:10.2310/8000.2013.130756

Britain Willcock is an information designer, communications strategist, and all-around connection builder.

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