Working with PowerPoint

Lecture and conference talks can be enhanced by PowerPoint , but unless it is used with thought it can overwhelm your audience.

July 14, 2008

“Use PowerPoint sparingly,” advises Chris Young, senior consultant trainer at Netskills. “Focus on being engaging and using PowerPoint to illustrate key points. 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 addressing students because it means there is a real value in them turning up for the lecture.

“What makes a good presentation isn't just reading from the slides but how you add value and extend them,” says Dave Spicer, associate dean for MBA programmes at Bradford School of Management. 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.

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. 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 will not cause problems for people with colour blindness. Miles 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. But as you become more practised, you should edit the slides and make the points verbally instead. Having less on a slide will make it easier to respond more spontaneously to different audiences.

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.

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 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 don’t forget the spell check, Young warns. “Nothing is more embarrassing than standing in front of class with a spelling mistake in 3ft-high letters.”


• Netskills:

• European Computer Driving Licence:

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