Thursday, January 1, 2009

How to use PowerPoint in 2009

Olivia Mitchell of the Speaking About Presenting blog sent me this provocative post by Laura Bergells on the Maniactive blog: It notes the backlash against bullet-filled PowerPoint slides, which led to simple art-filled slides. Neither approach works for audiences, Bergells notes, proposing there is (or should be) another backlash against the simplified slide. In fact, she calls the use of simple art and pictures--designed to evoke emotional responses--"propaganda." Sounds like everyone agrees that, if you must use them, they should have the pop and fizz of a good champagne. But what does that mean PowerPoint slides should look like in 2009? Mitchell asks.

I'm no advocate of slides, which tend to serve as projected cue cards even the audience can follow. I'd much prefer to see speakers build their skills to engage audiences with language, gestures, movement and even physical props, rather than as passive narrators of PowerPoint. Bergells notes:
When it comes to experiencing a PowerPoint presentation, there's only so much your brain can process. You can either listen to a presenter speak, or you can try to read what you seen on the screen. If you try to do both at the same time, you absorb less. And you become irritated with the presenter.
At the same time, she points out, audiences are becoming more skeptical and want more information--in part, because they're used to getting it from social media:
Social media has also made "talking back" popular. People are becoming accustomed to criticizing presentation techniques and content on Twitter backchannels. They're creating and commenting on blogs, and voting on Digg or StumbleUpon. Today's audience isn't quietly and politely absorbing canned corporate and political propaganda: they're getting accustomed to talking back and creating their own content.

So where does that leave us? I say if you must use PowerPoint, in 2009, use it to further the discussion with your audience. I've started using social media techniques in my own speaking by opening with audience questions, recording their questions on video and posting them on my blogs. That's not just for the sake of a trendy technology, but to engage the audience--and it works, allowing not just for involvement but to lead to the more thoughtful, difficult and intellectually challenging conversations audiences want. In that scenario, speakers in 2009 could use PowerPoint to:

  • Ask questions of the audience: Instead of loading your slides with bullets or pictures, try posing relevant--and thorny--questions about your issue. Use the slide to guide, even encourage discussion.
  • Play advance feedback back to the audience: If your conference organizers ask the audience to submit advance questions, get them ahead of time and share them on a slide or series of slides--no better way to let the audience know you've heard their feedback, and a great guide to a discussion.
  • Add to the slide in real time: Ask the audience to call out points and amend your slide on the fly, so their input is reflected. Or start a list on the slide and turn to the audience to add to the points you've made.

That seems to me to solve the problem of what to watch: Audience members, seeing their issues and questions on the slides, can fully engage with both slides and speaker. Then, once you've put the audience front and center, you can put up slides with some answers: data, ideas, examples.


Unknown said...

Lovely post.

If the current, more decentralized and participatory "social" media trend can lead to a more conversational style of presentation than the "mass media network" lecture, well then..,


Thanks for the mention!

Fletcher Prince said...

Well, I agree and I disagree. I agree that PowerPoints can distract you from the speaker and a spectator can get a sore neck snapping view from speaker to slides :) And I am one of those speakers who is guilty of over-reliance on PowerPoint slides, using them like cue cards. But, as an audience member, I do sincerely appreciate it when a speaker uses a PowerPoint presentation, unless they are just amazingly riveting, especially if I am trying to learn a lot of steps or complex information. One thing to consider is how various people in your audience may process information. Not everyone can focus on auditory input. Some process information better visually. I am one of those people who "hears slowly" and I also sometimes just don't hear well. I don't process auditory information as quickly as others, and I am also distractible (conference calls are impossible for me). I was one of those people who had to sit in the front of class. So, PowerPoint slides are a lifesaver for me (even if it's just art -- the image helps me remember the point) because they help me focus on the speaker and if my attention wanders, I can retrace through the slides (this is where hand-outs help) and catch up. Otherwise, seriously, I would over-focus on her earrings or something. :) I also like slide handouts, because taking notes helps keep me focused. And I suppose even the most cued-in person can be distracted if he/she is tired. So that is something to consider.