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Putting PowerPoint in Its Place

Teaching with Tech

Putting PowerPoint in Its Place

Few, if any, technological tools generate stronger personal reactions among educators than PowerPoint, possibly because of its rampant popularity. According to information design expert Edward Tufte in his book The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, “PowerPoint itself has transcended mere software status to become a cultural icon of contemporary communication.” (p. 3) Various accusations have been leveled against PowerPoint, including that it causes presenters to mutilate data or avoid interaction with the audience. One source even claimed that PowerPoint contributed to the crash of the space shuttle Columbia. As a teaching tool, however, PowerPoint is simply as effective as the individual using it. If the slides are bad and the presentation poor, that's not PowerPoint's fault.

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Few, if any, technological tools generate stronger personal reactions among educators than PowerPoint, possibly because of its rampant popularity. According to information design expert Edward Tufte in his book The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, “PowerPoint itself has transcended mere software status to become a cultural icon of contemporary communication” (p. 3). Various accusations have been leveled against PowerPoint, including that it causes presenters to mutilate data or avoid interaction with the audience. One source even claimed that PowerPoint contributed to the crash of the space shuttle Columbia. As a teaching tool, however, PowerPoint is simply as effective as the individual using it. If the slides are bad and the presentation poor, that's not PowerPoint's fault. Unfortunately, most of us have had personal experience viewing (and possibly making) some pretty bad slide presentations. To avoid these kinds of presentations, we offer the following tips for creating visually cleaner and more effective PowerPoint presentations:
  1. Keep it short and simple Start by defining the goal of the presentation—what is it that you want your students to know, understand, or feel when you are finished? With that purpose identified and concepts to be addressed listed, put a single concept on each slide, dividing complex concepts into a series of slides. Your slides should follow a logical progression, each building on the other. We recommend using the least number of slides possible in order to keep your students attentive and interested.
  2. Avoid overloading slides Limit text and images to the essentials if you want students to spend most of their time listening to you. Visualize a wide imaginary border around your presentation screen, and place objects and text only inside the border. This will result in using about 80 percent of the slide space. Using bullet points or short sentences (limited to one line without text wrapping) and removing articles such as “a” and “the” will help make maximum use of space. Remember that a single word or phrase is easier to retain than a lengthy sentence or paragraph.
  3. Find good graphics Pictures can help convey and clarify your message. So, write something meaningful and support it with a powerful image, video, or graphic. This works better than adding more words. Almost every slide in your presentation should contain some sort of graphic. Don't forget that photos from an outside source may be copyrighted and should not be used without permission.
  4. Consider color Select a simple standard look for your slides so that they provide visual consistency throughout the presentation. Choose an appealing template that is not too eye-catching. Make slide backgrounds subtle, and choose contrasting text colors so that the slide is easy to read. For more information on selecting colors, read Dave Paradi's views on choosing colors appropriate to the particular mood you want to convey, at ThinkOutsidetheSlide.com (https://www.thinkoutsidetheslide.com/choosing-colors-for-your-presentation-slides/).
  5. Choose a standard font Text is the most important foreground element, and choosing the right font style helps get your message across. You should choose a font that is sans serif, such as Arial, Calibri, Helvetica, and Verdana, because they are easier to read when projected. Maintain the same font and relative size for text objects in each slide. As for size, 24- to 32-point size is recommended for body text, with 40- to 44-point for titles. Use upper- and lowercase text, as opposed to all caps, and left-justify text as opposed to centering it.
  6. Proofread and revise Always, always proof your slides for mechanical errors, and run a spell-check. Also, preview to correct inaccuracies or misplacement of some items. This crucial last step may prevent your mistakes from being projected on a grand scale.
Presentation pointer Sometimes, it is advantageous to be able to draw on the screen during your presentation to illustrate a particular point or highlight a certain item. Fortunately, this can be easily accomplished during your PowerPoint presentation without access to an interactive whiteboard. Simply press the Ctrl-P key combination to activate the ink. Then, using the left mouse button, draw on the slide as you wish. To erase what you have drawn, press the E key. To hide the ink, press the Ctrl-H key combination. Narrated presentations Adding voice narration to a PowerPoint presentation can be an effective way to create online mini-lectures; these can be put into other websites as effective tools for delivering instruction electronically. For more information on how to create a narrated PowerPoint presentation, view this informative document from Clarion University (2012) at www.clarion.edu/342954.pdf or watch one of the many short tutorial videos that are available, such as www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZp3jumnWUg. And if you want to learn even more about the effective use of PowerPoint, we recommend this book: Bajaj, G. (2007). Cutting Edge PowerPoint 2007 for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. Excellent design abilities do not necessarily translate into accurate information or a smooth delivery; however the presentations of many good communicators have been undermined by poorly formatted slides.
Contact Rebecca M. Giles at rgiles@southalabama.edu.