I am no fan of PowerPoint for philosophical presentation. First of all, most conferences are now spent in a room with the blinds down and the lights off, just so people can read the slides off the screen. Secondly, staring at the screen all day makes my neck stiff and my eyes dry. However, disregarding physical discomfort, there are many ways in which using PowerPoint can ruin your presentation.
Nothing is more painful than seeing the speaker struggling with basic functions such as starting the slide-show, moving between slides, opening links or removing pop-up windows. A good idea is to learn the technology before giving the first presentation. Another idea is to check that everything works before starting the talk.
Too many slides
Many academics seem to prepare more slides than they expect to have time to go through and this is often explicitly stated already at the beginning of the talk. There are two ways in which this can ruin your presentation. One is that you try to rush through as many of your slides as possible before the time is out. This is not helpful for anyone and most likely your audience won’t have time to digest any of your points before you move on to the next. Another common mistake is to tell the audience that you won’t have time to go through this slide, but then “quickly” try to explain what they miss. In my experience people spend at least twice as much time on the slides they allegedly skip than the slides they go through. The reason is that it takes longer to explain something unprepared than based on bullet points that are thought through beforehand.
Too much text
A very common mistake is to fill the slides with lots of text and long quotes. This is not helping your presentation. While it might be useful to have all your notes on the slides, it is not helping the audience extract the main points from your talk. Most people will try to read what’s on the slide while you speak. And unless you are actually just reading your slides, just assume that they can only focus either on what they are reading or on what you are saying. None of these situations are optimal.
Too fast talking
Another pedagogical mistake is to assume that because something is on the slide, such as a long quote, you don’t need to read it out loud and clearly. So many people rush, mumbles or yada yada their way through the quote, assuming that the members of the audience are capable of reading the quote themselves. The problem is that your way of going through the quote might distract the audience’s reading of the quote, thus slowing down the process. The result is that most people have not finished reading the quote when you move on to the next slide.
Using slides as notes
It is very tempting to use your slides as your own notes. As mentioned earlier, a danger of doing this is the temptation to pack too much text onto the slides. But another rather annoying consequence is that you might end up having to face your slides rather than your audience. This is bad for obvious pedagogical reasons, but it also affects the audience’s ability to hear what you say. If you need to look at your own slides during your presentation you might even end up blocking the view for at least part of the audience by standing between the audience and the screen. Needless to say, it can be quite disheartening to have to read the slides off the back of the speaker.
Abuse of the laser pen
The red laser pen is supposed to be used to help directing the focus of the audience to a certain part of the slide. Unfortunately this is massively abused. If you use the pen to follow the words as you read them from the slides, it is annoying but still not unforgivable. But something that is far too common is to use the pen to continuously swirl the red light over various parts of the slides while talking, risking to cause an epileptic fit in your audience. This last mistake is so serious that I would be in favour of banning the red laser pen from any presentation.
11 steps to avoid PowerPoint cock-ups
To sum up, here are some tips if you still want to use PowerPoint in your presentation:
- Learn how to use PowerPoint before your presentation.
- Check that the equipment works before starting the talk.
- Keep the text on each slide to a minimum.
- Make only as many slides as you have time to go through.
- Talk about your slides rather than reading them out loud.
- Read quotes out loudly and clearly even if everyone can see them on the slide.
- Have your own notes rather than including them all on the slides.
- Face your audience, not your slides.
- Stand next to and not in front of the screen.
- If you are skipping a slide, just skip it and move on, rather than talking about what you skip.
- Use the red laser pen only for pointing the audience’s attention to a particular part of a figure.