Putting power in your PowerPoints

May 19, 2013 

Jim Vining’s words almost brought a recent Rock Hill school board retreat to a halt.

“Ban PowerPoints.”

Vining, the chairman of the school board, said PowerPoint presentations to the board historically have been “too thick” – too much information per slide. Also he’s tired of presenters reading their slides.

At the very next school board meeting, members complained that a technology PowerPoint was too difficult to read because of too much information and graphics that were too small to be useful.

The board, says Winthrop professor Marshall Jones, has been “slide whipped.”

That’s PowerPoint slang for a bad presentation overwhelmed with too much content per slide.

Jones has more than a casual interest in the board’s deliberations.

Jones is the director of graduate studies for the Richard W. Riley College of Education at Winthrop. He also teaches educational technology courses at the college such as “Teaching and Learning with the Internet” and “Connecting Technology and Curriculum.” He has previously taught courses in PowerPoint.

He is one of many community volunteers evaluating Rock Hill schools’ IRock efforts, the digitial education iniative to put an iPad2 into the hands of every student.

“I love PowerPoints.,” Jones said. “It’s a great tool that we have screwed up.”

Effective PowerPoints, he said, rely on some old-school technology:

• The presenter must be an effective public speaker.

• Less is better than more.

• Get to the point.

Jones recalled when he learned those lessons.

His public speaking lessons came in Mrs. Warner’s third grade class. Jones was selected to narrate the school play. Mrs. Warner taught him how to connect with the audience by constantly changing where he looked. Start to the right, come to the center, move to the left and do it over and over again.

“It was some of the best advice I got,” he said.

The Army taught him that less is better than more and how to get to the point. The lessons came when Jones was doing some consulting for the Army, presenting his work on PowerPoints to colonels and generals.

Jones quickly learned when he had spent too much time on a slide. Officers would waggle a finger, indicating it was time to move on, get to the point. Their time was valuable.

“It was a powerful moment for me.” Jones said.

That’s why one of Jones’ lessons on effective PowerPoints starts with “do the math.”

If you have 20 minutes to speak and you have 20 slides that is likely too many slides, he said. Cut the number in half, he said, because people don’t speed read a PowerPoint.

Then think redundancy, he said. A PowerPoint is meant to reinforce a message, not be the message. It is a chance to use visual elements to present information. Pictures and graphics allow people to process that information differently. Pictures and graphics should be the punch line to the presentation, he said.

The PowerPoint must also be readable.

Jones recalled the days when you spent hours making transparencies for the overhead projector. To determine if the information was readable, overhead projector presenters would put the slide on the floor and see if they could read them. Jones suggests presenters stand about six to seven feet from a computer monitor and see if they can read their PowerPoint. If you can’t, the type is too small or there’s too much information on the slide.

When it comes to the variety of special effects that can be used on PowerPoints, Jones suggests putting all of them into your first PowerPoint and locking them in your toolbox.

Used badly there are gimmicks that detract, he said. If you opt for a special effect, stick to the same one every time, Jones suggested.

Finally, and most importantly, remember that a PowerPoint is not your handout and it is not your presentation notes. It is a tool to reinforce that handout, a way to present the primary points.

“We’ve gotten lazy with PowerPoints,” he said, “and use them as handouts. That’s not what they are intended to be.”

Don Worthington •  803-329-4066

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