Using the Powers of PPT for Good

We have all heard phrases like “Death by PowerPoint”, and “Power Pointless” to refer to less than effective uses of that program. I have to admit that campaigning for the appropriate use of ppt by teachers AND students has been a crusade of mine for some time. I recently participated in a webinar on the effective use of visuals in slideshows. I exited the webinar with a renewed commitment to my battle. I vowed to write a post for the eMINTS blog.

Later that day I received a link to an article on Slate.com titled “No More Bullet Points, No More Clip Art.”  The author, Farhad Manjoo, asked an interesting question, “…are bad presentations PowerPoint’s fault, or are they ours?” He correctly points out that we don’t blame Outlook for annoying e-mails, we blame the author.

At my house we often discuss “using your powers for good”. It’s a nod to the powers of a Star Wars Jedi and we have probably worn that phrase into the ground as we have used it to instruct our children over the years. However, that’s what pops into my head when I think about teachers using PowerPoint in their classes and their students who are learning from the examples set before them.

So, how do we use PowerPoint for good?

First on my list would be the number of words on each slide. Years ago I taught a course on creating slide shows for instructional purposes. Let me explain; this was the kind of slide show that used little square pieces of cardboard inserted into a projector. In that course we hammered the “13-20” rule into the students; as in “No more than 13-20 words on a slide”. (I won’t go into how we got the words onto the slides. Let me just say, life was hard, and leave it at that.) Today’s SMART Boards and screens are about the same size as the screens we used back then. There are formulas you can use to determine font size, etc. based on the size of the screen and the size of the room, but 13-20 is a good rule of thumb. Now that you have fewer words on your slides, use a font size that can easily be seen from the back of the room. Shoot for somewhere between 20 and 40.

Second on my list is reading the slides out loud—as in—Don’t! The slides are there to reinforce your point with a visual, hold the attention of your audience, and prompt you in case you lose your train of thought. Reading something that is in front of your audience was considered to be poor form even back when the words were in purple mimeograph ink. The words on your slides should not be what you are going to say. They should be key words to help your audience understand and remember your message. I would never allow my young students to “read” a PowerPoint presentation to the audience.

Third on my list is to incorporate special effects, animations, and transitions carefully and sparingly. We are adults and just because you can choose to use a different transition for every slide, doesn’t mean it is a good idea. You probably won’t be wearing a clown nose during your presentation, don’t make your presentation wear one either. On this point I do differentiate between children and adults. If ever there is an appropriate time to try out all the bells and whistles of PowerPoint, it is when you are young. However, I tell the children that it is only acceptable because they are young and that they would never do that as an adult. Bear in mind that this is probably the first PowerPoint presentation they have created and the students are in second or third grade.

My current goal is to learn more about the effective use of visuals in presentations. The webinar I mentioned was conducted by Dave Paradi of ThinkOutsidetheSlide.com. He has some great slide makeover videos on Youtube. I could go on…however, if everyone reading this blog will follow my three rules, the world of PowerPoint will be a better place for us all.

Cathie Loesing is a program coordinator with the eMINTS National Center.