Saturday, January 25, 2014

Worth a Thousand Words?

by Linda Stine

This week—when I wasn’t stuck on snow- and ice-covered highways or shoveling said snow and ice out of my driveway—I have been putting together a lesson for one of my classes on how to create effective PowerPoint presentations. Up till now, I had always focused mainly on getting students to stop putting whole paragraphs of text onto their slides and then simply reading them to the audience during their oral presentations. “We can all read,” I reminded them.  “Use bullet points.”

Imagine my confusion, then, when I read an article entitled “Improve Your PowerPoints” and got to this section:

The good news is that 90% of the problem can be solved by following one simple rule: No bullet points. Reread the rule again (and again, and again) to make sure that it sinks in. Bullet points are the primary source of Death by PowerPoint. Bullet points are basically ugly wallpaper thrown up behind the presenter that end up distracting and confusing the audience. The audience is getting a message in two competing channels running at different speeds, voice and visual. It's a bit like listening to a song being played at two speeds at once. The audience member is forced to ask themselves: Do I listen to the presenter (which is running at one speed), or read the bullet points (which I read at a different speed)?

The author, John Orlando, argues that the main role of a PowerPoint slide should be to present a visual that focuses audience attention on your main issue.  This is true, he argues, not only for an oral presentation but also for a PowerPoint posted on the web.   He recommends software like Jing (see Bill Donohue’s earlier blog on this topic) or Audacity to explain the content of the presentation while the audience is looking at visuals—not written words—that reinforce the main points of that content.

What do you think?  What advice do you give to your students about making effective presentations?  Do you use PowerPoints in your own class presentations, whether face-to-face or online?  What, for you, makes an effective PowerPoint?  Do those bullets really cause death by PowerPoint? 


  1. Linda,
    How about visuals AND bullets? Does it have to be one or the other? When I’m in the audience, bullet points definitely help me focus on the subject and quickly get the main points of the slide – but visuals are always good to drive home a point! I recently read an article somewhere that really resonated with me; it stated that the problem with PowerPoints is that they often serve dual purposes. We use them in the classroom but we also post them online for the students to use when they learn on their own/review for tests. The author argued that what we really need are two different sets of PPs; one with lots of visuals and minimal text that we use in the classroom and another set for posting that contains much more text. I absolutely agree! But who has time to create two sets of PPs for everything? Although, for classes that I have taught many times I did recently start making two PP files – one that contains more text (my old lecture PP) that I post on D2L for students to use when they study, and another file with very little text that I use in the classroom to encourage participation by the students. The latter is full of questions and problems for students to discuss. So, to answer your question, in my experience, different types of PowerPoints are effective under different circumstances.

  2. I think the answer to the main question, about what to do in your PowerPoint presentations, is whatever works for you and your audience or students. More specifically, the answer to the question, "What makes an effective PowerPoint?," would depend on the goal you want to achieve.

    Recall the "good old days" when there were no powerpoints or even computers in the classroom. Powerpoints are merely supposed to enhance our presentations or add a visual element to it, for those who need it. If powerpoints do that in anyway, for at least some people, they have achieved their purpose.

    I recently attended an annual conference of The American Philosophical Association (in December 2013) where, almost as a rule, hardly anyone uses PowerPoint presentations. It was so refreshing when the President of the Division gave us copies of her entire presidential speech which we could follow as she read her presidential address. It made it easier to get or figure out almost everything she was saying and harder to miss words or misunderstand her or what she was doing. I bring this up to indicate that there can be value in replicating the "old school" model in this brave new technological world of powerpoint presentations; and, also, to undermine the following argument (which seems to be) implied in Linda's recommendation:

    getting students to stop putting whole paragraphs of text onto their slides and then simply reading them to the audience during their oral presentations. “We can all read,” I reminded them. “Use bullet points.”

    The fact that “We can all read,” does not (in and of itself) mean or suggest that we should “Use bullet points;” because, sometimes, there is some value in being able to have or read a full copy of a presentation. The trick is to make the presentation interesting and not boring in spite of giving the audience a copy of it. The President of the The American Philosophical Association did that (trick) by her "animation" including the way she delivered her speech, the way she explained her speech, and the examples and stories she used to supplement or deliver the (main or written) speech.

    I would, thus, have to disagree with John Orlando concerning his claim that "Bullet points are the primary source of Death by PowerPoint." My example, above, suggests that it is the presentation itself or, rather, how it is done or delivered and not the powerpoint or bullet points that is the primary source of "Death by PowerPoint."

    Safro Kwame

  3. Linda,
    I would agree with John Orlando about using Jing or Audacity. However, for accessibility issues, if the presentation is audio, there needs to be a written version for those with hearing problems.

    When preparing a PowerPoint, consider the characteristics of the audience. Is your audience primarily digital natives or digital immigrants? If they are digital natives, they are accustomed to skimming for main points. For accessibility issues, consider the colors, font styles, and adding captions to all graphics.

    Literacy in the 21st Century was one of my recent courses. The following was part of an assignment I submitted.

    When designing a PowerPoint presentation, consider the content, graphics and visual and spatial organization (Taylor, 2012). The visual appeal of the presentation can attract or distract the audience. For instance, the text on the slides should be phrases versus sentences (Taylor, 2012). The font size must be considered, using larger fonts for main ideas and slightly smaller font size for the phrases. In addition, limit punctuation and do not use all capitals or all lowercase letters (Taylor, 2012).
    Also consider the colors used in the presentation. Plain and simple backgrounds are best to use. If the background is bold or busy, it will distract from the content and purpose of the presentation (Taylor, 2012). Custom features are available in PowerPoint software. These features include, slide transition, text transitions, and animations (Taylor, 2012). Limit the use of these features. If choosing to use a feature, use it consistently throughout the presentation. Another guideline is to use graphics that support the text. There should be no more than two graphics per slide.

    Taylor, T. (2012). 100% information literacy success. Clifton Park, NY: Delmar,
    Cengage Learning

  4. P.S.
    I have a PowerPoint rubric somewhere. If I can find it, I will e-mail it to you.

  5. Anna, I think your point about PPTs needing to be different according to their different functions is an important one. And it stands to reason. I can't give my students rules for "the one right way to write" since what is "right" depends on audience, purpose, etc. So "good" PowerPoints, it seems to me, have to be evaluated against all those variables as well and we may indeed have to make different versions of the same presentation depending on how/where/with whom it will be used.

    I guess that's what Kwame means when he says a good PPT is one that works for the teacher and the student. And I agree that we might well reconsider whether PPTs really add anything (which is a different and maybe harder question than how to make effective ones.) Kwame, would you agree that our typical students might be more involved if they were looking at a good (however we define "good") mix of visuals and words than they would if you just gave them a print-out of your lecture as the speaker at the APA conference did? Are you suggesting we start focusing more on interesting students in what we say in the classroom rather than on how we can show them something on a smartboard screen?

    Brenda, thank you for that clear description of design issues--you got a lot of important information in a few main points that I'm going to share with my students. Your posting also made me think about a conversation I had during a Faculty Resource Network session the other summer with an NYU professor who works in game theory. His research showed that having voice, text and graphics on the screen at one time made it harder for people to remember the main message than if we just had voice and visuals or just text and visuals. Different parts of the brain were working at cross purposes. So maybe that's what the author I referred to in my posting was thinking when he suggested just voiceovers and visuals and killing off the bulleted text. But thank you for bringing up the accessibility issue. Jeez, this is all so complicated!!

    1. Yes, along with accessibility, it presents problems for others, too. Having voice, text, and graphics on the screen at the same time results in extraneous processing for the learner. Learners have less cognitive capacity to use to mentally organize and integrate the material. Some experiments have shown that overloading the visual channel of the brain will result in less learning. If we overload PowerPoints with visuals, maybe we should say "less learning by PowerPoint."

  6. Q: Would you agree that our typical students might be more involved if they were looking at a good (however we define "good") mix of visuals and words than they would if you just gave them a print-out of your lecture as the speaker at the APA conference did?
    A: To some extent; but, again, it depends on the definition of typical students.

    I had 2 sections of the same course, last semester. Most of the students in one section wrote down everything in the powerpoint, even if it was a dialogue, picture, page from a textbook or quote, while students in the other section hardly took any notes from the powerpoint. Those who kept delaying the class by writing down everything would have benefited from a print-out of the lecture. In fact, I did give them print-outs of the lectures, eventually, and both sections loved the print-outs. Additionally, I posted the print-outs in D2L; yet some students continued to write down everything in the powerpoints.

    Some students do not get involved, regardless of the mix of visuals and words, and they are just as typical as the other students. We do have a tradition of students who are in class merely because attendance is a requirement and, then, there are those whose idea of note-taking is to write down everything in spite of what they have been taught in FYE. Additionally, there are those who just want copies of your powerpoint and do or would not pay attention in class, read the textbook or take any kind of notes (if they knew they could get copies of your powerpoint). All of them are part of "our typical students," I think.

    Q: Are you suggesting we start focusing more on interesting students in what we say in the classroom rather than on how we can show them something on a smartboard screen?
    A: That would be nice; but powerpoints can be used to help do that.

    My point is similar to Anna's. I merely add justifications and qualifications (to Anna's, which I did not see before I posted my comments).

  7. P.S. The above comments are a response to Linda's questions to Kwame.

    Safro Kwame


      A publication called the one minute manager has a forgotten lesson in effective oral communication. It is a very focused and brief exchange of information between the speaker and the listeners, as for example, in a board room setting where a presenter has to make a pitch efficiently or loose a contract etc. thirty seconds or less.

      The PowerPoint has the features that can make a presentation effective if used to the speaker’s advantage. Communicating a message orally can be made effective by the speaker—spoken words, not by the PowerPoint’s paragraph or bullets. Bullets can be used to minimize distraction by focusing on the key concept with the fewest of words, allowing the speaker the opportunity to use spoken language to explain and answer questions between the speaker and the audience. Individuals with hearing problems need to be assisted by other professionals who can help them, perhaps not the presenter or speaker.

      If the presenter wants to read and regale the audience with a paragraph, then Microsoft word would do a better job than the small window frame of a PowerPoint. I suggest using a font size of 40, so that the furthest onlooker could read the paragraph. If we have to do our own reading and persuading, then, why do we need the speaker-presenter? We could use only a clicker-presenter.

      Re-reading the same paragraph over and over again is like flashing commercials in a cinema over and over again to communicate to the cerebral consciousness of the viewer. I relegate this reading and re-reading of paragraphs to the outlawed status of repetitive commercial advertisers in cinemas.

      Using printed words as a substitute for true ‘visuals’ is not very efficient, especially when we have a lot of materials to cover from a textbook or on a subject. I would agree that we should use videos, drawings, and art to help the audience enhance their experiences and minimize the presenter’s or speaker’s reading from a PowerPoint to communicate effectively and persuasively.

      Ganga Ramdas

  8. Ganga--well said, as always! I like your emphasis on "efficiency"--the idea that good visuals are more efficient than words in certain circumstances. I'm going to point that out to my students when they make their next presentation. They only have a few minutes, so efficiency is essential.

    To add in a note from an off-line conversation with Ken VanDover on the word vs. picture topic, though, I will admit that there are many circumstances in which words--good, well chosen, and well-thought-out words--are the only true option.