Avoiding “Death By PowerPoint”

A valued member of my PLN, Tony Baldasaro (@baldy7 on Twitter), recently shared a video that was at the same time incredible powerful and hysterical. Entitled “Every Presentation Ever: Communication FAIL,” it presents a parody of the common missteps taken by presenters at conferences and the like. Not surprisingly, much of the video’s critique focused on the ways people misuse the ubiquitous presentation software Powerpoint (and keynote, and Google presentation, and the like). Such presentation sins include: leaning heavily on fancy slide transitions and clip art, creating slides that are dense with text, and then to make matters worse, reading every single last bit of that text out loud during the presentation, and simply having too many slides.

(For another interesting article on the abuse of Powerpoint in boring audiences, this example in the US Military, check out this article  that appeared last year in the NY Times).

Most of us that are in the field of education are in one way or another, presenters. Certainly those of us who present at conferences and the like fall into this category. But even if you’ve never worn a conference badge in your life, when we teach in a classroom, we are often a presenter. Or when we pitch an idea to our faculty, or board, or parents, we once again play the role of presenters.

Looking at a video like this can be a source for a chuckle or two, but it can also serve as a means of reflection. Specifically, we can ask ourselves:

1) What makes a good presentation?

2) Why do we often seem to retreat to these ‘worst practices’ when we present?

I don’t have all of the answers, but I will try and share some of what I have been privileged to learn about on this topic. Virtually all of what I have learned has been a result of the wonderful educators in my PLN that have shared materials and answered my questions.

TED’s Impact

I believe that the development of TED Talks (and the wonderful decision made by their creator to release them all online, free of charge) has done us a great service. Besides providing excellent and thought provoking content, they have also introduced us to some first rate presenters. As was referenced in a different post on TED and web video spurring innovation, the TED Talks have caused presenters to ‘up their game,’ spending weeks and months preparing for a single 18 minute session. And what do we in the audience, the beneficiaries of all of this one-upmanship, see? Well, the TED Talks, by and large, seem to have two important qualities that stand out for me:

1) Impactful visuals

2) Clear and well prepared ‘speeches’ by the presenters.

Many of the TED Talks use Prezi, or some other variation of that platform. Prezi is an online service (free of charge for educators!) that looks at a presentation as a blank canvas. You, the presenter, can populate that canvas with anything you want – a picture, a video, text, etc, and you can control the degree to which a particular element is zoomed in on, as well as the order of the session. Instead of looking at a session as a series of slides, think about it as a large football field, with a Skycam hovering over it. This camera, developed to provide alternate views of the action on the field, can be maneuvered by a series of cables horizontally and vertically over the field, and can zoom in or out of the action depending on the needs of the broadcast. In your Prezi, you can lay out the elements of your presentation on this open ‘field’, and then use their ‘Path’ tool to create an order for the camera to focus on one element or another.

Here is an example of a Prezi I made, for a presentation I gave at YouthCon ’11, which I hope can illustrate some of its features.

YouthCon ’11 on Prezi

What’s nice about Prezi is that it forces the presenter to think more about the visual message of the presentation, and to hopefully come up with a graphic that can emphasize the point (rather than just text). The zooming feature is an exciting visual approach for an audience, and a quick zoom out to the ‘full canvas’ view allows for the presenter to show the participants where one concept fits within the larger structure of the presentation, something that is more difficult to do on a Powerpoint presentation.

PowerPoint is Here to Stay

Prezi is not for everyone, and even for fans of the platform, it’s important to recognize that Powerpoint is not going away any time soon. Nor should it, as it remains a very powerful medium for telling a story to an audience, when used effectively. In addressing the question of what makes a good Powerpoint presentation, I would recommend getting to know one educator in particular. Bill Ferriter (@plugusin on twitter) teaches 6th grade language arts in North Carolina, and in addition to being an all-star educator (named regional teacher of the year), he also maintains a first rate blog called The Tempered Radical. Among his many passions in the world of education is our issue of presentations and the visuals that make them up. Bill maintains a growing collection of what he considers to be effective powerpoint slides, which he readily shares on his blog and on Flickr. (As an aside, this is what the culture of sharing on a PLN is all about: Bill shares an actual Powerpoint version of his slides, so you can download it, play around with it in Powerpoint, see exactly how he made it, and modify it for your own use!).

Ask Your PLN!

When I was recently working on a classroom presentation for graduate school, I decided that I wanted to try and mimic the presentation style of the most effective sessions I had seen at conferences I had attended over the last few years. The two qualities that I kept coming back to again and again were: 1) keeping text to a bare minimum, and 2) utilizing images to emphasize a message. I reached out to Bill on Twitter for some advice.

Bill responded with a full blog post on the subject, entitled “Five Tips for Creating Powerpoint Slides that WON’T Bore Your Audience.” I encourage you to read the post closely. To summarize, however, I was glad to see Bill reiterate what I had been thinking in his first tip, entitled “Ditch the bullets – and MOST of the Text.” Too often, our presentations are made up of written summaries, in bullet format, of what we are communicating verbally to the audience. I decided then and there that I was going to make my presentation “Bullet Free” as best as I could.

Well, it took longer than I had thought it would, but I was able to make a bullet free presentation! Here it is:

So what is an effective use of text in a presentation?

As Bill recommends, resist the urge to write summaries of lists of what you are speaking about. Instead, look for the “money quote,” one line that can be particularly impactful for driving your message home. Unlike in the “Every Presentation Ever” video above, the quote should be relevant to the point being made. There may still, of course, be times when you need to show a list, etc., but it seems that best practice is to use those only when you really need to. Perhaps as an alternative, you can offer a link to a file or web site that lists those resources in more detail for audience members to peruse later (use a link shortener like bit.ly to come up with a short link that audience members can quickly write down and remember. It can even generate a QR code for you!).

But we are not yet done. We need to come up with the image that is going to complement the text you have chosen. Rather than rely on the existing Powerpoint backgrounds, with an image inserted somewhere in the middle of the slide, make the image the ENTIRE slide. This gives it a lot more ‘pop,’ and when properly paired with text, can really complement your verbal presentation. So where do we turn to for images?

Creative Commons

Before we get to resources for finding images, let’s quickly get familiar with the concept of “creative commons” license. As you are aware, creators of content (be it movies, books, pictures, and so on) protect their rights by copyrighting the material. In this way, it is illegal for other parties to use (and profit) from their hard work, without getting permission first. The Creative Commons license was created in order to give creators of digital content the opportunity to share their material and allow it to be used by others along with proper attribution. For more on Creative Commons and other fair use issues pertaining to pictures on the internet, see this very thorough blog post.

Image Resources

The best images to use in your presentations are going to be those that have creative commons licenses (or ones that simply indicate no restrictions on use by 3rd parties). So how do you find these images? Well, the Creative Commons organization has a convenient search page on their web site which allows you to search a variety of photo sites for Creative Commons licensed images. But you can also check out some of the photo sites themselves. My favorite is…

FlickrFlickr is a a photo sharing site that is used by everyone from mom’s posting family snapshots to amateur and professional photographers alike. It uses a tagging system which allows for easy searching of photos. HERE is a nifty little page on Flickr which clearly breaks down all of the different rights that photographers give for use by others through a Creative Commons license. Using Flickr’s “Advanced Search” page, you can filter it to include only results that have a Creative Commons license.

Google Images – Google’s image search engine remains a very popular way for people to find images, although I would argue that you will find significantly more dynamic and better quality images using Flickr. For a video tutorial on how to use Google Image Search to find Creative Commons photos, check out this helpful post from Free Technology for Teachers.

Other resources: Finally, this blog post lists several other search tools that can help you find Creative Commons images. And Photo Pin is another cool image search site for finding pictures you can use in your presentation. As an aside, the Pinterest social network has been generating a tremendous amount of buzz lately, and its graphic/image oriented platform with a heavy reliance on tags is another great resource for finding images and getting graphically inspired.

On the 2nd question, as to why we revert back to poor presentation habits:

For me at least, the main motivation here is simple. It’s easier. We spend hours and hours researching a topic, putting together the foundations of what we are going to say. When it’s time to work on the actual presentation visuals, we’re tired. We’ve finished the content, and what easier way to disseminate that information than through a bunch of text based bullet lists? While it may in fact be easier that way, see if you can try out some of the tools and guidelines described above.

Your audience will appreciate it!

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