PowerPoint is Making Your Presentations Terrible or Learning to Talk

February 12, 2012

I have been to many presentations, and I am sure you have too. How many of them have been bad? For me, that number is somewhere around 80%. All of the presentations I have been to have used PowerPoint (PP).  Is this PP and badness a coincidence? No.

As part of my curricula, I have to attend a seminar and listen to the third-year students present their work. Often times, they are rehearsing for a more important presentation. We are provided with comment sheets to give feedback. To be honest, most of them receive the equivalent of a “C” grade from me. I’m sick of watching bad presentations and have decided that a feed foward mechanism is needed. I’m going to talk about two very different views on presentations and then offer some really basic advice at the end of this post.

First up is marketing guru Seth Godin who put together a booklet called “Really Bad PowerPoint (and how to avoid it)”. In it he takes an unorthodox view on PP that actually brings it more in line with traditional talks. He speaks about making an emotional connection with your audience. Every speaker seeks to connect on the emotional level with the audience. Having worked in a theater, I can tell you that I have felt and seen how powerful this connection can be. If you can forge this connection, people will want to listen to you.

Clearly, this is from a marketing perspective, with Godin going so far as to equate the talk with selling. While this is true to an extent, a technical presentation requires copious amounts of data. Scientists, like most people, don’t want to be sold. My advisor prefers to look at a graph or table and draw his own conclusions rather than having the speaker interpret it for him. I’d argue that many scientists are this way because of the level of critical thinking displayed by technical minded people. For a technical audience, you must give them all the facts. To this end, Godin suggests distributing a handout with all the details at the end of your talk.

Pravda or PowerPoint? You decide.

The handout can convey all of your data in a much more powerful and condensed form than PP slides. This view is bolstered by the careful comparison done by Edward Tufte, a pioneer of data visualization. In his booklet, “The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint”, he cites countless examples of the paucity of information in PP. In one table, he shows that the median number of data entries in a table in PP (12) is not much higher than Pravda’s propaganda (5). The picture above could easily be from a PP given today. Tufte rails against the cognitive style of PP with its bulleted lists, low information density, and thoughts chopped into slides. Tufte clearly has a more technical outlook and makes a compelling case by showing how the communication deficiencies of PP cost lives in the Columbia space shuttle disaster. He makes a compelling case that PP actually detracts from your ability to communicate.

While I agree with Tufte, I feel that he is overlooking what Godin prizes: the speaker. Tufte talks exclusively about the slides and how poor they are. When Tufte  mentions that speech is about 100 to 160 words per minute whereas the median word count for slides is 15 words, I figured he would start to address the speaker. Alas, he continues to focus exclusively on the slides. This is not to say that his advice is unsound, rather that in order to give a good presentation you must take Godin’s emotional connection between the speaker and the audience and couple it with Tufte’s methods visualizing data.

Going forward, I’m planning on picking up Tufte’s book tomorrow. By reading up on good examples, watching excellent speakers, and practicing I intend to get top marks when I present in two years.

Two Tips

If I am giving a speaker low marks, they have failed to do these two incredibly basic things:

1. Breathe. Slow down.

Speak slowly and effectively. If you have too much to say, cut it down. If you are nervous, practice and make a conscious effort. Videotape yourself presenting and watch it. It will be eye-opening.

2. Properly use a mic.

First, check if you really need a mic. If you do, show up early to your talk and see what type of mic you have. Try it on and adjust it. If it is a clip-on mic, clip it in the middle. Otherwise, your voice will fade in and out every time you turn your head. Nothing is worse than your audience wincing every few minutes as your hair makes the mic boom.


One Response to “PowerPoint is Making Your Presentations Terrible or Learning to Talk”

  1. […] and outspoken about his ideas for communicating statistics and other technical data since 1975. I mentioned Tufte before when I discussed his hatred for Powerpoint. There his major gripe was the low resolution, […]

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