The Big PowerPoint Question

by Jay Cross on May 7, 2007


Learning Circuits Blog’s Big Question this month is PowerPoint: What is appropriate, when, and why?

A fellow in London recently told me this was my most powerful slide, because it challenged the audience to move from being receivers to being contributors.


excerpts from Informal Learning:

Slide after slide of three-bullet sentence fragments is an awful thing to watch. If the presenter reads them to you, it makes a bad spectacle worse. Yet PowerPoint has become the language of business.

PowerPoint is also learning’s most popular authoring tool. Many software packages enable you to narrate a PowerPoint and upload it to the web, compressing the files for download or online viewing. The problem is that if live lectures are ineffective, pre-recorded lectures on the web are very ineffective.

Being an expert doesn’t make one an expert presenter. Sadly, many business experts think the purpose of a PowerPoint presentation is to expose the audience to content, as if emotion played no part in getting a message across.

It makes no more sense to blame PowerPoint for boring presentations than to blame fountain pens for forgery.

Steve Denning, the author of several great books on storytelling, recalls not being able to get into someone’s PowerPoint presentation because the speaker was presenting his own framework. Steve abandoned PowerPoint in his own presentations in favor of telling stories; no one missed it. When you hear a powerful story, you make it your own. Your imagination makes it your story, and that’s something you’ll remember. “I liked the book more than the movie because the colors were more vivid.”

Having read Steve’s books and talked with him about this, I’ve given up most PowerPointing in favor of impromptu dialog when my audience numbers less than a hundred. The first few times, this feels like working without a net, but in time it becomes easier, because you are more responsive and you can change the flow on the fly to suit your listeners.

Rather than formulate a set of rules, I’ll comment on a few slides I’ve had fun with.

This is a frequent opener. It gives my basic info, and reassures people they are in the right room. It also enables me to say whatever comes to mind. And of course, Smokey captures the hearts of the dog-people in the room.

Sometimes I’ll put a simple slide up and not mention it at all; I don’t have to. If people wake up from a snooze, they’ll know what I’m talking about.

slide6 slide4
Slides are invaluable for presenting time lines. The left one is what happens when you compress the history of the universe into one calendar year. On the right is several years” history of eLearning Forum.

This one probably has more text than required. Tufte had it right: if it doesn’t add to the message, it’s a distraction.

This picture of Austin, “reading” a technical catalog upside down, was part of my earliest talk about eLearning, at TechLearn in 1998. The slide combines emotion with the caveat that things aren’t always what they seem. Pictures of people draw listeners into the story like nothing else.

People who see this one  immediately get the message and react with “What’s with that?” Sometimes an image conveys the message better than words.

PowerPoint is an amazingly flexible and adept graphics tool. When brainstorming a project, I start with a Mind Map and a PowerPoint file; it works better for me than for word processing. Most of the charts and diagrams on my websites originated in PowerPoint.

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