Do fear the Powerpoint?

Seth Godin is an American author of numerous business books and one of the most popular blogs in the world. In a recent post, Nine steps to Powerpoint magic, his provocative first suggestion is:

Don’t use Powerpoint at all. Most of the time, it’s not necessary. It’s underkill. Powerpoint distracts you from what you really need to do… look people in the eye, tell a story, tell the truth. Do it in your own words, without artifice and with clarity. There are times Powerpoint is helpful, but choose them carefully.

Obviously, writing from the point of view of business sales, Godin has a diferent agenda from the academic presenter, but maybe there’s something for us to consider here. Is Powerpoint a valuable supporting device for our lectures and presentations or is it more of a hindrance than a help?

David Byrne*, in his publication Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information, claims that “there are subtle sets of biases at work” in Powerpoint that “have been designed assuming, a priori, a specific world view” and that the software, “by making certain directions and actions easier and more convenient than others, tells you how to think as it helps you accomplish your task”. Thus, in Byrne’s view, Powerpoint is not just a fancy add-on that may or may not render our lectures and other presentations more exciting, more informative and more memorable, but something that actively structures the way we think about the things we think about – driving us to bullet points and tables and text flying on and off the screen, shaping how we know by giving a Powerpoint shape to what we know.

* Yes, that David Byrne – lead singer of Talking Heads

About Jennie Barnsley

I am the Research Development Officer in the CLTR (Centre for Learning & Teaching Research) where I have worked part-time since January 2005. In this role I develop activities and resources to encourage and support colleagues across the institution to research their pedagogic theory and practice.
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9 Responses to Do fear the Powerpoint?

  1. A smith says:

    I have to agree with Godin’s observation. Powerpoint is great for visual transmission of information, but if you do not need it then do not use it. It can make you lazy and careless about what you discuss in a lecture or meeting. It also serves as a distraction from you as people watch the pretty shapes and the words move around the screen rather than the person who has all the information and can bat questions.

  2. Roy says:

    Great post. Is the David Byrne book in the TLDU resource bank if people want a look? As I recall it is v expensive but a lovely production with a DVD.

    Next week: Ian Hunter from Mott the Hoople deconstructs OHP slides.

  3. Roy: yes, the book and DVD are in TLD (LINC First Floor, Ormskirk Campus) for people to have a look at. Afraid it’s not for borrowing, but if people want to watch the DVD here, we have the necessary equipment.

  4. Margi Rawlinson says:

    PowerPointless Workshops

    Whilst I’ve always encouraged group interaction in my ‘study skills’ workshops (hence the title of ‘workshop’) I used to back things up with the ‘safety net’ of a few PowerPoint slides. I don’t use PowerPoint any more. It only serves to add more pressure on students (who are already pushed for time) and seems to have just replaced the ‘chalk and talk’ method. I just got fed up and upset watching students frantically take notes from the slides (even when they had the PP handout in front of them), while at the same time trying to engage in meaningful discussion. My experience of working with students in my capacity, tells me they just want the opportunity to talk with their peers and tutors/faciltators and to get some reassurance.

    Clear handouts/worksheets for students to add to/take away, and signposting to other resources, seem to be more productive. I still use PP in ‘lecture’ situations, as it’s harder to creat the ‘workshop’ environment with 150 students!!

    Here are a few student evaluative comments from ‘PowerPointless’ workshops. They were written under the heading: ‘What did you enjoy about the session today?’

    ‘I was glad to see no PowerPoints [sic] and more personal interaction was evident.’

    ‘ “Real” presentation not PowerPoint.”

    ‘More interaction from speaker and group having the opportunity to get involved.’

  5. Margi Rawlinson says:

    PS…can’t wait for Ian Hunter. Get Bowie on the theme please!!

  6. Roy says:

    Margi – not sure about that, though Bryan Ferry does have strong views about interactive whiteboards 😉

  7. Margi Rawlinson says:

    Ha Ha…don’t get me started Roy or this whole academic blog will quickly deteriorate!!! :0)

  8. Angela Felton says:

    I fully agree that Powerpoint can channel presentations into a fairly structured format, but that is not always a negative thing. Depending on how it is used, it has the potential to create barriers to interpersonal communication as the audience may concentrate on the screen rather than the speaker. It can also promote a passive ‘push’ style of delivery, which will suit some subjects better than others.

    Due to the nature of the software, there is some danger of getting carried away with form and design at the expense of content. It is also worth noting that many standard Powerpoint templates, colour schemes, fonts, transitions and other special effects can unwittingly create barriers to accessibility.

    Apart from this, I think Powerpoint has become rather stale and cliched. I’m sure many of us are a bit jaded by the ‘standard template’ look and feel of presentations we have recently attended. For these reasons I have successfully delivered a couple without the use of slides, and have also attended a few, which proved very refreshing. Whilst I don’t entirely agree with Godin’s view that we should not use Powerpoint at all, perhaps we sometimes need to ask the question ‘what can Powerpoint add to my presentation’ before we hit the keyboard?

  9. Mary McAteer says:

    Interesting posts, which draw me back to a time long ago when OHTs were the “new technology”. After a particularly uninspiring INSET session in a school where I was teaching, I remember one of my colleagues commenting on the presentation (which had been on the VERY high tech – COLOURED OHTs). Obviously in awe of reprographic facilities higher in spec than those which we possessed at school, she commented on the “wonderful professionalism” of the session.

    Made me wonder very much about the concept of “professionalism” in education, and brought to mind style and substance issues (not to mention the fur coat one…).

    I guess there’s an analogy here (since music seems to be a theme in this as well…) of the (over)production of some commercial music, and the associated dissapointment when the band or artist can’t produce the goods live.

    Also of course, there’s an emerging (or perhaps established!) school of thought that we are breeding a new generation of quick-fix, intellectually lazy, or indeed incapable, young people. Perhaps we have modelled that for them??

    I’ve more or less got rid of Powerpoint, as I’ve felt myself lulled into a sense of security that I have properly prepared my teaching if I had the .ppt “done”, and was finding that in some way, this left me intellectually unprepared for teaching on a Master’s level programme, on modules which ought to have a dialogic underpinning.

    Interestingly – the move to low-tech use of flipcharts with group work, the use of small focus-group discussions, the development of Socratic Method approaches, has been much more interactive,and provocative in the promotion of rich dialogue and debate, and the student’s LIKE it.

    I get my students to do an oral presentation of their work in progress, and feel that this term I will ask them NOT to use .ppt, but to either teach a short seminar, or lead a debate…

    To return to the point raised about the way in which .ppt makes us structure our information, and that being a reflection on/cause of a shift in our ways of THINKING. This resonates strongly with the ways in which shifts in our language can be seen as both a cause and a product of our shifting ways of thinking. My main concern here is the insidious nature of this, and the ways in which normalisation occurs. Witness the shift towards more reductionist ways of conceptualising a range of (moral) issues from Quality, Accountability, Ethics etc, with the widespread adoption of managerialist language.

    Powerpoint as a means of social engineering??

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