(The following article was published in August 2006 in the IT Manager’s Journal. Since this site is no longer active, I am reprinting the article here with a few minor modifications to give it a more permanent home. If you find the article useful, you can republish it under a Creative Commons Attribution – No Derivatives license.)
For many, returning to classes means returning to slide shows. Once used mainly in business, today slide showsare equally important in education. Students use them in portfolios to share their mastery of a subject, and many consider them a basic requirement for class presentations. Yet, despite the ubiquitousness of slide shows, few people use them well. Here are some tips to help you improve your presentation skills.
Some doubt that slide shows can ever be used effectively. Among them are communications expert Edward Tufte, who satirically compares them to a May Day rally in the Soviet Union, and Peter Norvig, who highlights their shortcomings with the Gettysburg PowerPoint Presentation. These criticisms are overly severe, but they emphasize the point that if you want to use slide shows effectively, you have to understand their limitations as carriers of information and the restrictions they place on design, and make them a supplement to your presentations rather than an end in themselves.
As their name suggests, slide shows were inspired by 35mm slides. They also owe something to overhead transparencies. However, like spreadsheets, slide shows are a product of the personal computer. The first slide show software was MORE, a Macintosh program for outlining released in the early 1980s. It was followed in 1987 by Microsoft PowerPoint, whose pre-installation on most new computers helped to spread the popularity of slide shows until, by the end of the 1990s, standing up to talk to a group without showing one became a guaranteed way of being noticed.
With the rise of free software, tools like KPresenter (now Stage) and OpenOffice.org / LibreOffice Impress became available. While these lag behind PowerPoint in support for sound and some advanced features, they are adequate tools for the vast majority of slide shows.
When to use slide shows
The most important point to remember about a slide shows is that it is a medium with serious limitations. With no more than 50 words per screen, by itself a slide cannot easily communicate complex information. Even more seriously, slides are designed for one-way communication from a single presenter to a group, and do not encourage conversations or questions. This one-way flow of information is perfect for a standalone demo at a trade fair, but not for a forum in which you want to encourage interaction.
With work, you can reduce these tendencies, although you will always be straining against them. However, before you choose to use a slide show (assuming that you have a choice), you should ask yourself:
- Is one of your goals class participation?
- Will members of the class require individual instruction?
- Is an appreciation of language necessary for the subject?
- Is your information complex or abstract?
If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, then you should consider either not using a slide show or making it only part of your presentation.
Choosing and organizing content
The worst thing you can do when developing a slide show is to transfer all your notes to slides. Doing so may beconvenient for those who miss your talk — although less so than you might think even the most detailed slide shows omit too much to stand by themselves. However, it almost guarantees a dull presentation.
Instead, resist the natural tendencies of the medium by delaying developing the slide show as long as possible.
Start by outlining your presentation in another program, and developing a detailed series of notes. Before opening Impress or KPresenter, go through your notes and mark:
- Key words or concepts that need definitions or that might be misspelled.
- Any material that might need illustrating through a still picture, animation, movie, or sound clip. You may be able to find usable content at Classroom Clipart or the Open Clip Art Library.
- Points where you might want to display a quiz, discussion questions, or other interactive material.
By adding these markers to your lesson plan, you’ll know when you need a slide. If you’re using OpenOffice.org Writer, you can save time by formatting these markers in a Heading 1 style, then selecting File -> Send -> Outline to Presentation to open Impress with a series of files automatically defined for you.
Another way to decide how to use a slide show is to imagine what you would do if you had no projector but could give your audience handouts or draw diagrams on a whiteboard. Anything that you would put in a handout or draw on the whiteboard can go into your presentation. Anything else should not.
The result of either of these methods is a slide show that lacks continuity — but, unless you are designing a looping demo, you don’t need any. The purpose of the slide show is not to be complete in itself, but to support what you say.
Designing a slide show
A slide is a very limited space. The fact that it is designed to be viewed at a distance makes it even more so. For this reason, the simpler you keep the design, the more effective it is likely to be. Also, if you resolve to keep the design simple, you are less likely to waste time on the chrome — impressive effects such as getting bullet points to doppler into sight in time to music — instead of on content.
You can find backgrounds for slides with a quick search, but you can also design your own using the master slide view (available in Impress from View -> Master Slide -> Slide Master). Whether you download or design, choose the basic color scheme for contrast: you’ll want a dark background for light text, or the other way around. At the most, you’ll want two fonts: one for the title and subtitle, and another for bullet points. To keep them readable, the smallest font you use should be about 22 points.
Simplicity also applies to slide transitions. Choose one and stick with it, unless you plan a change for dramatic effect.
Similarly, when designing individual slides, remember that:
- Keeping your bullet points to a single line will help you to resist the temptation of reading them.
- Slides only have space for 5-7 bullet points or 1-2 pictures. If a slide contains both bullet points and pictures, then halve these totals.
- The more complex a diagram, the larger it should be. Many diagrams work best on a separate slide.
- To keep the slide size readable, use another slide rather than squeezing more material on to one slide.
As you edit, your goals should be simplicity and readability. If you find your slides getting complex and cluttered,or requiring smaller text, then you need to reconsider what you are doing. In some cases, you may find the material simply doesn’t fit comfortably on a slide, and needs to be a handout or a drawing on the white board.
Delivering a slide show
You have two related problems while giving a slide show: Keeping yourself from reading from the screen, and keeping your audience from reading the screen when its members should be paying attention to you.
If you create your slide show as suggested here, both these problems should be minimized. However, you can reduce them even further if you:
- Reduce your nervousness by arriving and setting up before the class starts, and carrying a backup presentation plan in case of mechanical failures. The less nervous you are, the less likely you are to let the limits of the medium control the presentation.
- Know your material well enough that you only occasionally need to refer to your notes or slides.
- Continually position yourself (from the class’s perspective) to the left of the screen you are using for the slide show. Since English reads left to right, their eyes are more likely to move toward you. If you are using a lectern, position it in that spot, if possible. You do not need to stay in that position, but when you start to refer to a slide, you should move to that position, and keep coming back to it as you continue to discuss the slide. With any luck, you will draw at least some students’ attention toward you and what you are saying, and away from the slide.
- Move around as you deliver your presentation in order to distract the audience from looking at the screen. In fact, you can signal changes of topic by changing your position.
- Get somebody else to change slides, or be well-enough rehearsed that you can set the slide show to advance automatically. The less you interact with the slide show, the less likely you are to start reading slides.
With these hints, you should have as good a chance as anyone of controlling your slide shows, rather than being controlled by them.
When desktop publishing programs became available in the 1980s, easy access to advanced design features created a mountain of documents that had been tweaked into unreadability by inexpert users. In the same way, the rise of slide show programs in the mid-1990s has been responsible for millions of presentations that bored their audiences into insensibility. In some circles, the inexpert use of slide shows has become so commonplace that people have been known to cheer when presenters announced that they were not going to deliver a slide show.
Now that their novelty has long worn off, there is less excuse for inexpert use of slide shows. Use them sparingly, and with an understanding of their limitations, and you can get slide shows working for you, rather than against you — and keep your audience engaged rather than stupefied.