Learning to live without PowerPoint

When did academics lose the capacity to discuss their research without slides, asks Gary Rawnsley

March 9, 2016
Speaker giving presentation at conference

Picture the scene: Professor X, given 15 minutes to present his latest research at a major international symposium, delays proceedings for 10 minutes as he, the chair and the discussant all cluster around the podium, trying to understand why PowerPoint is not working. The audience shift restlessly in their seats as the chair apologises once again for the technical problems and some leave for another panel.

At a PhD workshop, student Y, already nervous about presenting to his peers and the staff of the department, visibly sweats as the equipment fails to work. For some reason, the computer is just not talking to the projector. Three members of staff and another PhD student bustle around him, pushing buttons and flicking switches, alternately staring at the screen and the projector. The audience shift restlessly in their seats as the chair apologises once again for the technological problems. Eventually the computer experts are called, and everything comes to a halt while we wait for them to trudge across campus and fiddle around some more with buttons and switches. (“Have you tried turning it off and turning it on again?”) 

Unfortunately, this is becoming an all-too familiar scene in a profession where overdependence on PowerPoint and other forms of presentation jiggery-pokery is now not only expected, but is also considered the norm. Indeed, I have delivered papers where the audience have almost gasped in collective horror at the idea they will not have text to read on the screen, but will instead have to look at me as I speak without PowerPoint about my research. When did academics lose the capacity to discuss their research without preparing slides?

More importantly, are we explaining to the next generation that they should be able to deliver a meaningful presentation about their research even when the technology fails to work? It is important that our PhD students understand that sometimes things go wrong; that the computer refuses to work or read the file on the USB, or that the laptop you expected to be in the room is not there on the day. We need to advise our students (and increasingly our colleagues) that they need a back-up plan, perhaps with some notes (dare I whisper these words in our technology-driven world?) on paper, and that it is OK to begin your presentation while the computer is being fixed, or even avoid using PowerPoint altogether.

Of course the overdependence on technology is annoying and distracting in myriad other ways: the all-singing, all-dancing PowerPoint slides with machine-gun sound effects that accompany every letter that literally spins on to the screen, meaning that just the title of the presentation takes almost five minutes to appear (I kid you not – I recently witnessed a professor prepare such a presentation at a major international conference); the commitment to filling every available space on the screen with text of ever-decreasing font size; or, arguably most annoying of all, the presenter who turns his back on the audience and simply reads reams of text from the screen. All are observed examples of a serious decline in the ability of academics to communicate their research. Is the focus on the presentation covering the lack of substance and intellectual rigour?

Of course PowerPoint and other presentation tools are useful, but they are simply that – tools. I use them to display photos, diagrams, maps and tables, sometimes to play a video clip. You could never do this with an overhead projector and transparencies. (Remember the fuss of preparing them?) There are even times when, depending on the audience I am addressing, I decide it is necessary to add a few bullet points to a slide. But I am confident that, having written some notes (on paper, sometimes with a pen) the show will go on even if the technology lets me down. I hope that I am in sufficient command of my subject to be able to speak about it for 10 minutes, if not longer.

When we are training our PhD students in the art of presentation, are we giving them the necessary advice – the confidence  that will allow them to avoid an addiction to PowerPoint and ensure that they may experiment with using it less or not at all? At the very least are we making sure they are adequately prepared to still deliver a meaningful presentation even when the computer stops talking to the projector? If experienced academics cannot communicate without PowerPoint, how do we expect our students to do so?

Gary Rawnsley is professor of public diplomacy and director of international academic strategy at Aberystwyth University.

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Reader's comments (9)

Anyone interested in a detailed analysis (and an inspirational and informative diatribe) of exactly how PowerPoint typically dumbs down communication, would enjoy reading Edward Tufte's "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint" (2003) pp.27. This includes a fascinating account of how the inadequate analytical and technical content of presentations to NASA officials using PowerPoint is believed to have contributed to the space shuttle Columbia's accident in 2003. Also, a great parody of the Gettysburg address as a PowerPoint. http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/books_pp
A colleague and I failed to prepare a Ppt for a conference presentation a few years ago and had to just wing it. It was such a novelty: several people congratulated us on our ‘old school’ approach.
There are good, average and bad presentations created in PowerPoint. I don't believe people should continue blaming PowerPoint instead of realizing that PowerPoint is just the tool, and as any other tool it could be used in a good or bad way. It is clear that presentations can be used as a very efficient and good communication channel also adopted in a new era of businesses.
I've been working in Medical Academic circles trying to share ideas that will help us in our struggles to communicate and importantly allow us to use media to sort our communication rather than hamstring it. On this particular issue please have a read http://prezentationskills.blogspot.co.uk/2015/10/prepare-for-failure.html?m=1 and consider preparing for failure ahead of time
I am afraid this is of limited use in data-rich academic fields such as microbiology, for example - where lack of projection of graphics will cripple 9/10 presentations, because you can't describe a data plot with your hands. Seriously, battling with projection issues is not an issue at just about any conference I have been to in YEARS, unless the presenter insists on using their machine to present with. Which simply isn't allowed, increasingly. And I can think of far worse things that could happen in the old days - like having an idiot projectionist drop your slide cassette, and hastily stuff them back, in any order and inverted, without telling you, on your first international conference presentation. I got drunk that night.
All good comments. Thanks for reading and leaving your feedback. Just to be clear I have no issue with ppt per se. I find it extremely useful and user-friendly for graphs, pictures etc in both presentations and my teaching. My issue is with colleagues who don't know how to use it, depend on it far too much, and can't speak about their research when the technology fails.
Don't you mean a presentation package, of which PowerPoint is just one? The monopoly of Microsoft in HE is deplorable. Why not use LibreOffice with its presentation package. An alternative, of course, is to place your material on the web before the conference and alert participants to it so that they can consider the data before the conference. Effective feedback is not facilitated by simply presenting your material at the conference. The web way is also more effective than pre-circulation of papers. Here, I make another plea for HE to abandon Microsoft (and the constant reference to its proprietary parts of office) and embrace OpenSource.
No edit function, it seems. Add question mark after third sentence.
While I'm generally in favour of bashing Microsoft and Powerpoint (I don't use either on principle), and there are certainly dreadful presentations that cram too much often illegible content onto the screen, the article fails to address wider issues of what makes an effective presentation. As others have pointed out: Powerpoint is not the only presentation package available nor is it necessary at all times. Some topics are best communicated visually. Research has shown that content is better remembered when backed up by good visuals. I have a design background, and the discussion of anything visual is best facilitated by... visual materials. It's rather silly to describe something that you can simply look at. I have also found that people for whom English is a second language find it easier to follow what is presented if there are some words. It is worth looking at some really great presentations such as those by Steve Jobs (plenty on YouTube, seek out the one announcing the iPhone) and others who embrace simplicity: few words, a limited number of ideas at one time, powerful messages, and powerful visuals.