killing me softly, slide by powerpoint slide

I’m just about to head into another conference. I have to prepare my own presentations over the next few days and it’s made me think about what I loathe about powerpoint and its cousin prezi.

I don’t mind a set of slides where people just put up a few key points. It helps keep them on track, and me as well. If English is not the presenter’s first language then some simple, clear sides are a good way for them to make sure that they have a communicative safety-net. Simple slides are quite often helpful for an audience whose first language is not English and who have trouble keeping up with native speakers who talkreallyquicklysotheirwordsruntogether, or who have distinctive accents (like me).

And I can handle it when the technology doesn’t work and the video just doesn’t play as it should. I’m sympathetic. That could be me getting flustered and frustrated. I’ll sit there and be patient and I won’t turn into the technological expert who then competes with the presenter to sort it out.

But what REALLY irks me is when:
• a presenter has prepared twenty slides for a fifteen minute slot and they then spend the last few minutes flicking through them to try to cover everything. Hey, do the maths!! Five or six slides is the most you’re going to manage. And if you haven’t got to it, give up and conclude gracefully (and don’t make the same mistake next time).
• people have put too much stuff on one slide – you can’t read something complex and listen to what they are saying as well. You have to choose between reading or listening and this probably isn’t what they imagined would, or wanted to, happen.
• the presenter just reads the slides, one after one after one after one. Give me a break – I can read them for myself, what I want to know is what else you have to add to them.
• the writing on the slide is microscopic. Anything under about 20 point is just inviting the visually challenged (and there will be some in the audience) to turn off, then and there.
• there is too much ornamentation – flashing letters, effects that make the points arrive on screen at odd times and speeds, slide changes that make you think you are in an installation not a conference … then there’s the in and out lurching of prezi… one of those is OK but several prezis in a row is sea-sick inducing. All this visual kitsch distracts from the paper, but if the medium is the message, then presenters really need to consider what the message is that is being enacted through an over-embellished medium.
• people use pre-prepared proprietary formatted slides. These are visual mcdonaldisation, and when you’ve been force-fed loads of them in a short space of time it’s rather like eating too much of anything – you just want to go and sleep it off.

Am I just grouchy? Well yes, but also when I see someone do the slides really well, when they show that they understand the visuality of the medium, it does make me realize and appreciate the potentials of ‘the conference presentation’.

A conference presentation is, just as much as the paper, a re-presentation of the scholar, their work and their desire to communicate with an audience. If time has been taken – either to select and pare down the argument of the paper to some simple points or to explore the possibilities for representing data – and if the audience has clearly been thought about, then they will respond positively. I know I do.

So now for my presentations. Easy eh – all I have to do is to do what I say!!

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in conference papers, conference presentation, powerpoint and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to killing me softly, slide by powerpoint slide

  1. cj13 says:

    Like you, I loathe Powerpoint but Prezi which i use a lot in teaching does have a few nice properties. Sure it can be used like a dizzying version of PP but you can edit stuff and add stuff as you go. You can set it up so it can be edited by others before/after. It’s not marvellous but a small step in freeing up the totally rehearsed presentation which could be done via screencast!

    I recall the days when you spent hours preparing well designed (if that is not a contradiction) acetates. All PP offers (and yes I know about the cute programming stuff you can do with it but hey…) is that you can’t drop your PP and the slides get all shuffled as was the case with plastic slides but given some of the PP presents I have sat thru i doubt that would have mattered much. And prior to the acetates were slides, painstakingly prepared, also subject to being dropped.


  2. M-H says:

    A couple of years ago I experimented with voiced data. I’m using material from blogs, so I spent an hour recording random people from my office each reading 50-100 words from half a dozen blog posts, then finished my presentation by playing four of those while displaying the key sentence from each on the screen – it took about five minutes of the time. Each audio file can be linked from a power point slide, and it worked well. It made the words of the participants come to life for the listeners.


    • cj13 says:

      Hey M-H – reminded me of a gig i had in Darwin a very long time ago – and I had four positions that I wanted to examine. I wrote four scripts and got four volunteers at the conf. to ham them up for me as part of the presentation.


  3. Hi, thank you for the blog post 🙂 Given its subject and some of the comments above, i thought it may be worth sharing this TedTalk video:!recently featuring an altogether different approach to slideshow presentations (and/or to getting to grips with the content of one’s PhD!).
    When a science PGCE student I remember working alongside an incredibly creative and inspiring teacher who got his A-Level students to choreograph a series ‘dance moves’ in order to model the different levels of protein structure. Based on that experience, I can bear witness to the fact that it is a very powerful way to impart learning indeed!!
    Of course, power pts and memory sticks present certain advantages on the ‘mobility front’… 😉


  4. I have been thinking about this as well since attending a conference at the beginning of the month. There seems to be a common convention in academic lectures/talks that goes against most of what we know about how to engage an audience (e.g. your bullet points)! I was starting to think I was the misguided one for not following the over-loaded/boring slides format and that I should just conform (maybe they know something I don’t?).. so thank you for giving me a bit of hope that just because most people are ‘killing us softly’ with bad powerpoint, we don’t all have to.

    Of course it comes back to your concluding point.. it’s easier to say than do..


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