Turn off that projector!

March 31, 2009


The best type of learning is active. People learn best by doing, rather than simply listening. Unfortunately too many training course involve sitting and listening to the trainer while watching an endless stream of  poorly designed PowerPoint slides. After a while the audience inevitably starts to lose concentration.

Slides have a role to play in training, but they should be used carefully. They are usually used in a passive way where the trainer talks over the slides. This can be OK for a short while, to introduce concepts or sum up a discussion, but it can get tedious after a while, even if they are well designed.

There are ways of using slides actively. For example by showing pictures on screen which can then be discussed by the class or by using them as the basis of a quiz. But there are plently of other ways of including active elements in a class. For example, brainstorming, exercises, practical demonstrations and role plays.

Introducing variation in courses keeps the audience more involved and interested and breaks up the monotony which can be associated with using one teaching method.

Sometimes it’s a good idea to turn off the projector!

Slide Design

March 27, 2009


I’ve recently been involved in running a pilot of a course intended for an international audience. It’s the fourth in a series of course that are being developed. A couple of major companies have been funding the development of materials that can be used free of charge by anyone running the course as a way of encouraging the takeup of these courses. For the course I was running, someone else had been commissioned to prepare the material – a manual, exercises and PowerPoint slides to use during classes.

When I was forwarded the material and saw the slides I was far from happy. They were excellent examples of the old approach to slides. Full of words and very few pictures. What pictures there were were generally poor quality. They weren’t just full of bullet points – but contained whole paragraphs copied straight from the manual.

I have put a lot of effort over the last year in working to improve my use of slides in my presentations. I’ve considered where and when to use slides and also their design. There are a number of good books on this, Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson, Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds and Slideology by Nacy Durate have been particularly useful. There are a lot of blogs, too, devooted to presentations and slide design. So there is plenty of advice and experience out there to draw on. The general consensus is that the traditional approach to using PowerPoint is ineffective at best and even detrimental to learning.

The approach I’ve adopted is to use slides judiciously – as one method of conveying information. I use other methods of getting information across  – demonstrations, excercises, flip chart/whiteboard – to introduce variety but also because sometimes other techniques are more effective. Where I use slideware I’m trying to avoid slides with loads of bullet points, limitthe amount of information per slide (using more slides where necessary) and using pictures and graphics as much as possible to make the learning more visual. I know I haven’t got everything with regard to slide design just right. I like the Presentation Zen / Slideology approach but think that it needs some adaption for small group teaching. So I’m still working on it.

So I was horrified when I saw the material I was given to work with. Consequently I put quite a bit of effort into modifyig the slides more allong the lines I’ve adopted. Time constraints meant I wasn’t able to change everything completely, but I was much happier when I used them on the course itself. I didn’t have any negative comments about the slides from the course delegates and everything seemed to go well.

After the course the modified material was made available to the sponsors. One of them, however, was not happy with the changes. His view was

    • the slides were very different to those from the other courses previously made available and he felt they should all have the same style
    • the English language ability of many of the delegates on courses would not be strong and they oflten couldn’t understand the presenter, so the slides needed to convey the information.
    • The wordy slides were needed as the delegates who were not very proficient at English could copy down the information as they could understand written English better.
    • The wordy slides acted as a summary version of the course material

      If English langiuage skills are a problem copying lengthy passages from slides is not the solution. The delegates don’t gain much benefit from doing this and there is little value in having them sitting in the class – they could pick up the same points by reading the course manual. The value of gathering people together for a course is the interaction with the tutor and other delegates. The slides are there to support learning and should not form the main mode of communication between the tutor and the learners.

      The principles of good slide design apply whatever the circumstances. if there  is a perceived problem with language, using wordy slides isn’t the solution. It begs other questions. Is there any real benefit asking learners with poor English language skills to attend a course where they are going to struggle to undertand what is being said? If it isn’t possible to run the course in their own language, what is the best way of training them so they can learn something useful? Is there anyone out there with experiences they could share on this?

      Plan B

      March 23, 2009


      I’m running a course this week on “Measurement of hazardous substances”.  To get the information across I’ll be using a mixture of presentations and exercises. “Using presentations” sounds like I stand up and talk at the trainees, but that’s not how I approach it.  As our courses are for small groups (9 this week), I try to make the sessions more like a two way conversation, talking to the trainees and trying to get them talking back to me – encouraging their participation. I throw out general questions, but try not to let one or two of the trainees dominate the discussion – addressing qquestions directly to the “quieter” individuals. It makes the session more enjoyable for me and I hope that’s also the case for the trainees. I use Powerpoint slides to help me get my message across, but  try to ensure they support my teahing rather than dominate it.

      This morning during a session my laptop decided that it didn’t want to cooperate. The presentation “hung up” and wouldn’t move on. Rebooting mid-session was an option but instead I turned off the projector. My pre-prepared slides weren’t absolutely essential – I don’t use them as a script – and I found it refreshing to revert to keeping the audience engaged by what I had to say supported by a flip chart and pens.

      I’ve had to do this before. I once had my laptop and projector stolen at lunchtime on day 1 of a 5 day course (from a locked room in a hotel we were using). There are a number of other ways a trainer mght find themselves without the “technology” – power failures and bulb failure,  for example. A good presenter needs to be able to cope.

      The lessons from these situations are

      • don’t jut be reliant on “technology”
      • foster various methods for getting your material across
      • make sure you have a plan B
      • try working without slideware from time to time to give everyone (including yourself) a change
      • make sure you know your stuff so you don’t need to use the technology as a prop and can cope without it

      The curse of Powerpoint

      March 22, 2009


      As soon as you put a slide up on screen with words on it – especially bullet points – your audience starts to frantically copy them down. Try and move on and you get one or more requests to keep it on screen longer. Most people do it – in fact I know that I do it myself when I attend presentations by other people – you almost can’t help yourself! As a presenter, if you haven’t planned for this, and need to move on, it disrupts your flow.

      Why do people do this? I’ve come up with a few reasons:

      • The “Comfort factor” – you feel you are achieving something by writing something down
      • There is a perception that if there are words on screen they must be important
      • Writing down the points does help you to absorb them, but it also means that you’re not listening properly to what the speaker is saying (of course that doesn’t matter too much is the speaker is simply reading out the points – but that’s another story!!)
      • Perhaps it’s an ingrained habit from school – i.e. copying off the board.

      I think that you have to accept that the audience is going to do this. Its unlikely that you will be able to change their habits. But we need to take it into account when planning the presentation.

      When using slides for teaching or training, you want to get over key points that you want the audience to write down so that they can remember them. But the whole point of you being there is that the audience should listen to what you have to say (and when teaching or training you need to interact with your audience), and the words on the screen can distract and prevent them listening to you properly. Slides are meant as an aid to your presentation, not a substitute for it (otherwise you might as well just give them copies of your slides). They need to be used effectively. So taking into account my experience of how an audience reacts to slides, the following should be borne in mind when creating a presentation for teaching and training:

      • Only use words that are important on slides – use pictures and graphics to illustrate your points
      • When introducing concepts, keep the word count on a slide low – insert more slides with fewer words than a few slides containing lots of words
      • Use summary slides with bullet points (but not too many per slide) to sum up concepts which you want your audience to write down, and allow them enough time to for the audience to copy them down