The (non-)necessity of PowerPoint – a personal reflection

I am a traveling student who has seen a lot of PowerPoint and Prezi presentations at many universities in different countries. Here is my message: in many cases, they were not necessary to make! Let me explain why.

This text was originally published here; this is an extended version.

PPT, file, presentation icon vector image. Can also be used for file format, design and storage. Suitable for mobile apps, web apps and print media.

Slide presentations are not as interesting as you may think

A couple of years ago I took part in workshop about interactivity in a theater and performed a little experiment: we were checking what’s happening to an audience’s attention when there’s a performance with a video in the background. And of course we noted that most people were intrigued by the video – it’s the power of the visual!

But having something on the screen behind your back doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be attention grabbing. Cinema movies have their own narration and fulfill the whole show by adding something new to them.  On the other hand, the visuals used during a presentation are usually static. Their sole purpose is normally to provide information which cannot be described by your own words, like photos, examples, complex schemes, and statistic data. Of course it doesn’t mean that they have to be boring. Still, I’ve got an impression that most of people think that slide presentations magically grab attention of listeners and make the whole performance more amusing and entertaining.

You are more interesting than walls of text

There is a lot of things you don’t need in your slide presentation. Like walls of text. I’m sure they are full of information, but usually I can’t read them, because there is too much of it and the whole slide is illegible.

Actually, I don’t need text at all, because it’s rather difficult to focus at the same time on reading a slide (and processing visual information) and listen to a lecturer or any other presenter (and processing audio information). And how many times has it been where I couldn’t read a definition or anything else  on a slide?

As a matter of fact, I’m supposed to be listening to you – hear your observations, conclusions, anecdotes and jokes. Having text in the background doesn’t really help. I will read it maybe once, unless I decide to just listen to the speaker. There’s a chance that I’ll write something down, but probably I’ll forget almost everything from the slides after the lecture.

If you really can’t talk to me about the topic, I may just skip the lecture and read everything at home in a cozy bed, in silence. Just give me the references!

Better talk than show slides

Public Speaker A businesswoman giving a speech to a crowd of people. The businesswoman & podium, crowd, and background are on separately labeled layers.

Of course different people learn in various ways. Maybe someone prefers reading slides instead of listening, but my point is that presentations are overrated – unless you’re showing something really complicated and relevant to your topic. You don’t need text displayed on the screen or wall, random images combined with text, anything like that. Most of topics can be covered without making a presentation.

Some time ago, I gave a speech about gamification on the fantasy and RPG convention Avangarda. I didn’t prepare a presentation (I could have prepared some nice videos like this one, though). I was just talking, and you know what – I received very positive feedback! People during the speech were active and engaged in discussion. Still, all I did it was telling people cool and interesting stuff about gamification (and joking with them as the convention wasn’t very formal).

Presentation is not a lecturer

Please, don’t put the responsibility of presenting the subject on a presentation. It’s not going to work. If you really want to have a presentation, then try to make it more entertaining. Think about your topic – what’s interesting that you can show? Cool data? Maybe videos? But don’t push it. Maybe you don’t really need a presentation, but some kind of plan of your speech on your desk or a blackboard where you can write down something. Making a presentation just for keeping you on track it’s an overuse, but if your topic is very complicated, maybe it’s a good idea to prepare a presentation which will be just a reference point for an audience.

However, I can see a small exception here. Presentations full of information from an academic lecture are sometimes useful afterwards, because they fill in the blanks of my own notes. Usually they are overloaded by information and it’s pretty hard to read them during the lecture, but from time to time even walls of text are useful during the lecture. For example when we have to do some exercise connected with the topic and we have to use information provided by a lecturer.

Work with visuals

Set of presentation boards with pie charts, diagram and graphs. Vector illustration.

I told you a lot about what not to do – it’s time for something different. During one course, everyone – either alone or in group – were supposed to choose a paper about design research and make a presentation using only images.

This is a fantastic exercise which forces you to think outside the box when preparing a presentation, because the main workload is put in your hands and the presentation only supports you (in a very peculiar way). The whole audience was engaged during each presentation, people were laughing and discussing why someone used a particular image to portray something.

Images give you an excellent opportunity to play with popcultural clichés and references and they facilitate the process of communication with your audience. Making a presentation is similar to writing – you need to know who is your audience, what they already know and what will engage them. This knowledge will help you to create a proper presentation where there is more visually appealing content (and also relevant to your topic) than boring text.

There’s a plethora of ways

The truth is that everything depends on the topic and the role of presentation in it. Just keep in mind that in many cases a slide presentation isn’t the best idea to talk about your subject.

I have seen good slide presentations which the speaker was unable to use in a proper way, meaning that he or she didn’t have any idea how to interact with the visual support, so the outcome was very poor. You’re the most important part of the speech – not the slide presentation.

So here is my bottom line. Don’t display your speech on the wall if you don’t have any better idea; it will not help you. Nice visuals, on the other hand, might do the trick; you just need to know how to use them.

About Nikola Adamus

I did my Master's degree in Internet and Game Studies, but now I live in Poland and teach people game design. I love reading about science and research. Apart from all science-related things, I'm a rugby player and miniature painter.
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