PowerPoint: Introduction

In Gulliver's Travels , while visiting Laputa's "School of Languages," Jonathan Swift's protagonist observes a scheme undertaken to prevent the "Diminution of our Lungs" that is caused by speaking: 

…since Words are only Names for Things, it would be more convenient for all Men to carry about them, such Things as were necessary to express the particular Business they are to discourse on.... Many of the most Learned and Wise adhere to the new Scheme of expressing themselves by Things; which hath only this Inconvenience attending it; that if a Man's Business be very great, and of various Kinds, he must be obliged in Proportion to carry a greater Bundle of Things upon his Back unless he can afford one or two strong Servants to attend him. I have often beheld two of those Sages almost sinking under the Weight of their Packs, like Pedlars among us; who when they met in the Streets would lay down their Loads, open their Sacks, and hold Conversation for an Hour together; then put up their Implements, help each other to resume their Burthens, and take their leave. (Part III, Chapter 5)

What does this have to do with PowerPoint ? Nothing. And everything. As in Laputa, our presentations--our conversations with our students--are increasingly marked by a tendency, if not a compulsion, to bring the expedient of PowerPoint into play. By Microsoft 's estimate, some 30 million PowerPoint presentations are given every day. Thus, like Swift's Laputan Sages, we get to our meetings, our classes, our presentation rooms, and begin by opening our sacks, unpacking our disks, our laptops, our projectors, and refrain from saying much of anything before we're standing before the comforting screen with its bulleted headings and its clip-art representations of objects, situations, and emotions. Our audiences, for their parts, watch the screen, writing down every word that appears with a bullet before it, or transcribing words like "important" into the margins of their slides. The presentations progress efficiently and linearly in half-darkness and, like the conversations of the Laputan, cannot well begin to accommodate information or ideas that hadn't been anticipated before the presentation materials were stuffed into a sack.

None of this is to say that PowerPoint cannot be effective; rather, it is to say that PowerPoint shouldn't be used for its own sake, as a way of displacing a presentation rather than as a way of enhancing it. In its best implementations, PowerPoint can illustrate aspects of a discussion that cannot well be expressed in words: a biology class can benefit from seeing the organism under discussion; a chemistry class can get real advantage from seeing a molecular representation; an economics presentation might well be enhanced with the graphs or charts that clarify, enhance, and contextualize what would otherwise be a string of numbers; a language class could find advantage in seeing words parsed out into their various forms; and a history class could gain insight by seeing a line of succession dressed up as an organizational chart. But in each of these circumstances, the advantages the class may derive are generally there in direct proportion to the way in which the PowerPoint materials supplement, support, and reinforce a presentation. 

To make PowerPoint work for you as an effective support as opposed to a limiting burden, you should consider a few general rules of thumb. 

  1. Be familiar enough with the software that you can navigate effortlessly from slide to slide; 
  2. Be familiar enough with the subject of your presentation and its sequence in your presentation slides that you can skip from slide to slide (or skip a slide that's already been covered) without losing your train of thought or your composure; 
  3. Use PowerPoint to reinforce, to illustrate, and to provide examples of your subject matter: don't use PowerPoint to convey your entire presentation, and don't read your presentation, word-for-word from the screen; 
  4. Avoid clip-art (as a rule); 
  5. Take advantage of the outlining tools in PowerPoint to arrange your presentation, and worry about the design elements after your presentation has been laid out; 
  6. Use a template to avoid the trouble of regularly changing font faces, colors, backgrounds, etc. 
  7. Don't put so much information onto a slide that the audience loses track of what you are saying in their effort to read everything on the slide; 
  8. Use transitions consistently throughout the presentation, and take advantage of PowerPoint 's ability to "dim" a bulleted point after it has been addressed; 
  9. Remember that you can blank the entire screen (by hitting b or w ) at any time during your presentation, and take advantage of this when you want to solicit questions, comments, or discussion; 
  10. If you print handouts for your students, don't invariably distribute them before the presentation. You've got a better chance of retaining the students' attention if you tell them that handouts will be made available at the end of the presentation than if you hand them out at the beginning. 
  11. Be prepared to give the presentation without PowerPoint : don't get caught unprepared by a failure of the computer, the disk drive, the software, the projector bulb, etc. 
  12. Take the time to fill in information in the "notes" area that PowerPoint provides: this will make the slides (and their context) more intelligible to you when you return to them several months in the future, and it will considerably enhance a presentation that you may wish later to post to a web-site.
  13. Ensure that your presentation is appropriately documented with acknowledgements of quoted or otherwise incorporated text and images, so you can easily refer your audience to the sources.
  14. Ensure that any use of materials belonging to others falls within fair use guidelines for classroom use; for presentations that will be posted to an open website, ensure that appropriate permissions have been secured.

And finally, a tip that's too big to be confined to a numbered item: rehearse . It takes some practice to become completely comfortable with the process of using any sort of presentation materials, and the time spent rehearsing will usually be more than adequately be repaid in the polished, coherent, well-organized, and well-illustrated presentation that follows.