Communications, Critical Thinking, Education, Power Point, Public Speaking, Slideshows, Speech, Visual Presentations, What not to do
I still remember the first day I learned to dread the power point presentation. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve seen good ones. I have at times been well pleased to take in a well designed power point presentation. If only I could have more of those days, and fewer of the kind that I have so often grown to expect.
I was sitting in a lecture hall many years ago listening to a colleague do a training for the rest of the faulty at our college. She was trying to teach us something about assessment techniques for accreditation, but the fact is that this particular colleague had nothing to say about the topic, and she was painfully slow in the way she was not saying it. The overall effect was a lot like a sedative and one of Pink Floyd’s longer and slower songs. Every point this woman made began with a new slide that added a phrase or quick sentence. She would stop talking, click a button, wait to see the new phrase appear and then pause long enough for us to read the phrase ourselves (twice). She would then read the phrase and give us a little more time to let it sink in. In a rare moment of personal empowerment, our illustrious lecturer would add a comment or two about the phrase before moving onto the next one. Mostly, she just let us take in the power of each individual bullet point. So, I’m sitting there watching this and trying desperately not run screaming from the room as I study the slide-show and wonder why I hated it so much. Of course training days are often a painful experience, but this was a special kind of heck, and the source of my particular sorrow on that day wasn’t immediately apparent. Eventually, I come to a realization.
It’s her outline!
What my colleague had chosen to pass off as a power-point presentation was nothing more than the outline for her speech, exactly the sort of outline we had all learned to write in our Freshmen Composition and Speech classes. There it was, unfolding there on the screen, one line at a time, as if it were some sad librarian’s version of dramatic tension.
Far from enhancing the presentation, this visual was slowing the speaker down and enabling her to avoid the responsibility even to explain the connections between the points of her talk. The speaker didn’t need to decide how each individual bullet point related to the major themes of her discussion; all she needed to do was read them at us. The visual served to occupy our attention and help us to forget that she had crammed a whole 5 minutes of information into an hour-long presentation. In effect, the presenter had looked into the heart of her software and found a new and improved means of bluffing.
…Would that this was a unique experience!
This technique also seemed to lend an ontological claim to the individual bullet points. Things that a person might just say offhand, or as part of a larger argument often seem to acquire a objectivity all their own, standing up there on a screen. A list of bullet points might contain causes, effects, and side comments to a larger heading, all quite unmarked in the visual. The verbal presentation did nothing to clarify matters. I grew slowly to realize the presenter did not herself know exactly how each sub-point of her presentation related to the main themes. She knew only that the topics traveled in a pack together, so to speak, and she wanted us to know that too. The visual solved this problem by telling us exactly how each point related to the next.
This was the secret of the power-point visual, it lent the illusion of mystic substance to each individual point while undermining the need to explore rational connections between the. Each individual point on the screen in front of us looked terribly important in its own right, certainly more important than the explanations that connect each point to the others. Those connections didn’t appear on the screen. the bullet points did. They mattered more.
…and critical thinking wept!
How true – I smiled as I read your comments. It appears some lecturers get in over their heads. They might know the material but not know how to present it.
The worst way for students to learn is just to read words; the next best way is to hear words (depending upon how the words are spoken); better yet, it’s said, is to read and listen at the same time. Select graphics usually help. But, lectures must realize how important body language is. Which is more important when giving a lecture? 1) subject of information 2) tone of voice 3) body language. The answer is, of course, body language.
I think folks often argue that putting the phrase up and reading it is an attempt to re-enforce the message, but I thin people would often get further by generating related narratives rather than matching ones. I also think that people need to develop the ability to draw connections between related sources of information. When the source materials match too closely, you get a better memorization effect, perhaps, but this comes at the expense of critical thinking skills.
Painting Pundit said:
Thank you for this post! I am now rethinking a presentation I have coming up!!
Did you do the presentation? I hope it went well.
Painting Pundit said:
Not yet. Its in the spring. Thanks for asking!
“There it was, unfolding there on the screen, one line at a time, as if it were some sad librarian’s version of dramatic tension.”
I just about died when I read this.
“And critical thinking wept!”
Thank you. 🙂
Aw… come on. Don’t reinforce negative stereotypes of librarians. For a time I dated a guy I met through a dating site who told me that the worst part of every first date was having to tell the woman he was a librarian.
Did you see this?
Well, I guess I must have done something right in my life. A few years ago I took a (yet another) stab a grad school and when one professor started putting up slide that said the exact same words that were coming out of his mouth, I said to myself, ‘What is this?’ Then it dawned on me, this must be that PowerPoint thing everyone complains about.
You are right, I owe the librarians of the world a mea culpa. I haven’t seen that one before. That’s hilarious. …poor kitties.
Thanks for this post. As a certified ophthalmic technician, optician and contact lens tech of over 25 years, I have had to sit through many presentations, both thrilling and enlightening to drive a nail through my brain excruciating. Nothing is worse than knowing someone slammed together some facts at the last minute and even though you know they KNOW the data, they just don’t seem to have arrived at the lecture along with the power point show. I do understand people are busy, but when our physicians who were in surgery sometimes the very day of their presentations can get up there and be enthusiastic and animated, then the support team should be just as willing. We actually have to pay money for these classes and I would like to feel it was well invested. Although on the other side of that coin, the sluggish “just get me outa here with my credits” employees who wouldn’t listen one way or another present another challenge altogether. We all have to pull together for learning to be a success. Thanks again.
I like your wording, suggesting that the presenter didn’t show up along with the power point. I think that is a good way to put it. Damned tiresome. I also think people would often get further by staying open to adjust the conversation as they go. Sometimes, all the planning seems to be an avoidance mechanism as much as anything else. They aren’t planning to improve effectiveness so much as to keep busy and avoid real dialogue.
I really wish this was an isolated and unusual event. Sadly, too many presenters now confuse the presentation with the tool. The tool has become the presentation.
Your comment “… and critical thinking wept” could not have been more apropos.
Thank you, and I think you may have the right idea as to the cause. I hadn’t taken it that far in my own mind, but I see this a lot with education. Some teachers really are so focused now on designing activities and online interfaces that they lose track of the content and the personal relationships. Sadly, I think some students prefer it that way.