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

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