Slide Design

March 27, 2009

training

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?

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