Careers intelligence: how to avoid ‘death by PowerPoint’

There are plenty of pitfalls to be aware of when using slides in a presentation – academics in the know give their top tips

August 22, 2019
Woman sleeping in lecture theatre
Source: Alamy

It is several hours into a conference, and the latest speaker is reading out their presentation from their text-heavy slides. Rather than being spellbound, the fatigued audience is in a slumber as the presenter fails to leave a lasting impression.

The factors behind this common scenario were illuminated in a recent tweet by Leslie Vosshall, a neurobiologist at The Rockefeller University. She prompted plenty of discussion – and gained more than 4,000 likes – after she advised scientists: “If you hear yourself saying ‘I know this is a complicated slide’, ‘This is a dense slide, but…’, or ‘Not sure if you can see this’, don’t show that slide.”

So how should academics do it? We asked several experts about the common mistakes made when giving conference presentations using PowerPoint slides, and what tips they have for success.

“The audience member has one chance to get the message,” said Ann Fandrey, an academic technologist in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota and author of Academic Slide Design: Visual Communication for Teaching and Learning. So the key is to focus on what that “essential main takeaway” is and write your presentation based on that, she added.

One common mistake that Ms Fandrey identifies is putting all your text on slides and forcing your audience to “choose between whether they read or listen”.

“We can’t read and listen at the same time. We can switch gears back and forth really quickly, but we can’t do both activities at once,” said Ms Fandrey, who believes that slides should be used as a visual aid rather than a teleprompter.

“If someone sees something and hears it, they are more likely to remember it. However, if they see too many things, they just get overloaded and they don’t remember anything," she said.

“Either they tune out the speaker for the entire time that they are reading the slide, or they have to just ignore the whole slide while they are listening to the speaker – and then you might as well not have slides.”

Pat Thomson, professor of education at the University of Nottingham, who recently blogged about how to transform the conference presentation format, said that a common mistake, particularly among less experienced presenters, was to prepare too many slides and run out of time.

These presenters run the risk of not getting their key point across, especially if they follow a traditional model – and her suggestion is to flip the format and tell the audience “early on what it is you have got to say”, rather than leaving that until a conclusion.

“You have to remember that people have come to hear the most important thing you have got to say. You want to give them the chance to follow it up, so you can’t present a full paper,” she said.

Chris Grant, who works in transnational education at the University of Bolton, follows a mantra that she learned many years ago: “Never have more words on a PowerPoint than you would have on a T-shirt.”

“One of the things I think most people do is they put too many words on a presentation,” she said.

“The slides should be adding to what I am saying, or giving a different perspective; it shouldn’t just be something for me to read.”

When it comes to slide design, Jonathan Baldwin, programme lead on design innovation at the Glasgow School of Art and a former graphic designer, is a firm believer that “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”.

It might be tempting to embellish slides with sound effects or fancy animations, but such distractions will detract from your presentation and should be avoided, he said.

“My preference is for people just to speak and use the slide as a prompt,” he continued. “If you know your subject and you are proud of the work you do, you will give a good presentation.”

Other bugbears for Mr Baldwin include “bad typography”. It is “a killer” for presenters to use “too much text, too small text or really bad font choices” such as Comic Sans, he said.

Academics must remember that they are “telling a story”, not reading a journal paper, Mr Baldwin added. “Those are the worst presentations, where people get up and they just read a paper. It’s like, well, I could just read this paper, I don’t need to spend £500 coming to the conference to have you read your paper at me.”

Many academics will probably agree with Mr Baldwin that the worst presentations “are always the ones you give”.

He added: “We go over and over it. You always have a bad story, but the key is just to move on and have a laugh about it.”

nick.mayo@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Keep slides as short as T-shirt slogans

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Reader's comments (1)

Make the presentation interactive rather than being a 'lecture' - engage with the audience with a show of hands, talk to them or using an audience response tool like https://www.participoll.com or similar.

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