Do not belabour the bullet point

March 23, 2007

If you are giving a lecture or a conference talk, PowerPoint could be just the tool you need to liven things up. But, warns Harriet Swain, unless it is used with thought it could overwhelm your audience.

You'll have to get going if you're to get through all those PowerPoint slides in time. And you'll need to cut down on the chat. Better to cut down on the slides instead, advises Chris Young, senior consultant trainer at Netskills.

"Use PowerPoint sparingly," he says. "Try to focus on being engaging yourself and using PowerPoint to illustrate key points rather than relying on PowerPoint material to cover up the fact that you are not a confident speaker. You want people to remember you standing there telling them something rather than that you used swishy information on your slides."

He says this is particularly important when you address students because it means there is a real value in them turning up for the lecture rather than just picking up copies of the slides afterwards. "It is the balance between you and PowerPoint that needs to work," he says.

And don't worry about students not having enough revision notes. If your presentation is good enough, they'll make notes themselves, which will be much more useful.

Dave Spicer, associate dean for MBA programmes at Bradford School of Management, says people commonly cram too much on to slides and then simply read them out. "What makes a good presentation isn't just reading from the slides but how you add value and extend them," Spicer says. He suggests there should be about 12 slides for a 50-minute talk and that each slide should provide baseline information that will then generate further discussion.

Spicer says that people also regularly use font sizes that are too small to see and advises avoiding anything below 20 points. If you print out six slides to a page and are struggling to read a slide in that format, make the font bigger, he suggests, otherwise students won't be able to read either the presentation or the notes. It is probably a good idea to use sans serif fonts (the cleaner type style used for the headline over this article), which are usually easier to read at a distance and by people with dyslexia.

In the leaflet In at the Deep End , given to all new lecturers at Leeds Metropolitan University, Phil Race, assessment, learning and teaching visiting professor, says that you should try to fill only the top half or two thirds of any slide to avoid your audience having to peer around each other. Use only a few questions, headline or bullet points per page, but don't cause "death by bullet point", he warns. "It gets tedious for students if successive bullet points always come one at a time in exactly the same predictable way."

If you do find you need more detailed information, there's always the hide-slide option, says David Miles, a trainer in the European Computer Driving Licence at Cardiff University. This allows you to bank extra slides that you can access when needed but that aren't part of the main presentation.

Using graphics, animations or even short video clips can be effective ways of grabbing students' attention. Spicer uses video clips from the films The Godfather and Henry V to illustrate presentations on different kinds of leadership. But don't be tempted to overuse them. "Understand animation and how to build slides up," Young advises. "But also understand when there is enough of it."

Spicer advises sticking to templates and a simple set of colours that are not going to cause problems for people with colour blindness. Green with red, and yellow with white are big no-nos, says Miles, who also warns against elaborate transitions between slides. "You don't want to lose the message in the media," he says.

Young says that your first presentations may be a bit wordy because you will probably be afraid about forgetting points if you leave them off the slides. But as you become more practised, you should edit the slides and make the points verbally instead. Having less on a slide will also make it easier to respond more spontaneously to different audiences.

Knowing your audience is vital. Young says that if you are giving a presentation at a conference you need to think more in terms of what it is you are trying to sell than you would with a presentation for students.

Also bear in mind that other presenters will probably be using the same templates, and even graphics resources, as you, which could lessen your impact. He says that, with very small adjustments, it is possible to create your own template using the PowerPoint masters option. This also allows you to create specific templates for handouts and notes.

Spicer says that however good your presentation, and whoever your audience, it is still difficult to hold people's attention for a full 50 minutes, so it is a good idea to refresh it by incorporating some kind of short activity. One slide could raise a question for members of the audience to discuss among themselves before the presentation resumes.

Young suggests using keyboard shortcuts to avoid embarrassing nervous hand tremors when using the mouse. Arrow keys get you forward and back in the presentation, pressing B will give you a black screen (press it again to return to the presentation), W will give you a white one, while pressing Alt and Tab at the same time will allow you to switch between the presentation and other applications.

Young says you should think of different ways of distributing your presentation afterwards. PowerPoint offers Package for CD or Pack and Go options, which means you can give it to someone who doesn't have PowerPoint on their computer. You could also make it into a PDF. Race advises against issuing straight copies of your slides in advance, which robs you of opportunities to surprise students with unexpected or fun slides, or to leave some out.

And whatever you do, warns Young, don't forget the spellcheck. "Nothing is more embarrassing than standing in front of a bunch of students with a slide with a spelling mistake - in 3ft-high letters."

Further information. Netskills: www.netskills.ac.uk

European Computer Driving Licence: www.ecdl.com

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