This very amusing short video of a routine by comedian Don McMillan illustrates in a very effective way some common traps people fall into when designing presentation slides.

Which of Don’s mistakes do you commonly make?

 I spend quite a lot of my time these days teaching and training small groups in a classroom setting. Inevitably this involves making presentations using the default tool – Powerpoint.

In one of the first posts on this blog I reflected on the problems inherent in using  “slideware”, like Powerpoint, in the classroom. The key points were:

  • learning should be active – slideware is passive
  • it isn’t good at distributing large amounts of information
  • it inhibits spontaneous feedback
  • it is not good in conveying information using non-linear paths
  • it is not good at recording input from the audience

There are some other problems too. When preparing slides the standard template drives you into producing lists of bullets. This is what Edward Tufte calls the “cognitive style” of Powerpoint. Preparing a presentation using Powerpoint drives you into producing an outline of your talk. The outcome is really a set of speaker notes which is too detailed for the audience.

Faced with slides full of bullets, I find that most people tend to try and reproduce all the points. Their attention  is divided and as they have to concentrate on copying from the slides, so they can’t listen properly to what you’re saying.

Well, they’re the problems I’ve identified, and I’m sure there are others too. What can we do to get over them?

The first thing is to ask yourself whether making a presentation with a stack of slides is the best approach for the class. Active learning, where the learners are engaged, is much more effective than passive techniques where the instructor stands at the front and talks at the class. Consider the alternatives – hands on practicals, exercises, demonstrations, brainstorming, role plays, group work etc. Depending on circumstances it might be viable to incorporate one or more of these into a class. Introducing variation in the teaching methods is always a good idea. To me the best classes are more like a discussion than a lecture.

The second thing to ask is whether having pre-prepared slides is the best visual aid to use. Sometimes its better to revert to the old “chalk and talk” approach using a whiteboard, flip chart or some other active medium. This allows you to be more flexible and draw in and record contributions from the group.


Sometimes there are other options – using models or pieces of equipment you can use for demonstrations, or even pass around.

Where you decide that you need or want to use slideware, there are a number of things you should think about

try and minimise the use of slides. Ask yourself is there another way of getting this across? Use slides only for those points where its really necessary

Remember that slides are free! Break them up. Ideally each slide should focus on one point (although you may want to include some summary slides that pull together the key points, but even then don’t cram too much on one slide – have your summary list on two or more slides if necessary)

Use diagrams and pictures where possible. I’ve attended many presentations where the presenter has slides full of words when a diagram would have been better.  For example, which of the following slides on the structure of the eye would you prefer?



Have more slides than you need to cover the main options. This will allow you to be flexible – calling up whichever slide is most appropriate depending on how the discussion progresses. Using Powerpoint’s “presenter view” allows you to do this. Alternatively it may be able to include a menu with hyperlinks into the slide design.


Picture of the eye from


There are quite a number of blogs and websites focusing on presentations. One of the best is Olivia Mitchell’s Speaking about Presenting. In her posts Olivia provides lots of useful tips and ideas for presenters and her readers often comment on the posts, sometimes opening up an interesting debate.

In a recent post about presentation handouts, it was recommended that they’re distributed at the beginning of the presentation. This is somewhat controversial as many presenters prefer to give them out after they’ve finished speaking. The recommendation is justified by reference to some recent research involving University students.

The posting has led to an interesting debate where a number of people have posted comments arguing against this. Olivia has subsequently acknowledged that there are circumstances where its better to distribute them after the event in a follow up post. It’s good to see someone taking on board comments and modifying their view rather than taking a dogmatic position. Well done Olivia!

First of all a few words about the research Olivia refers to. I haven’t read the paper that was published but I’ve looked at the abstract and read a summary that was published on the web by the British Psychological Society (BPS).  Now, we have to be careful when drawing conclusions from any research. The findings will depend on what exactly is being tested, the scope of the study  and the methodology used. In this case there are many contextual factors which could affect the findings and they are unlikely to be applicable to all circumstances. It seems that the research involved only two studies with groups of University students and that the materials concerned appear to have been copies of the lecture slides – not exactly conforming to Olivia’s recommendations regarding the format of good handouts. There are a number of comments made on the BPS blog posting questioning the study methodology. I personally have serious doubts about the validity of this study and don’t think the findings can be generalised to justify the need for handouts to be given out before a lecture or presentation. A lot more work, covering a wider range of situations and a more thorough methodology would be needed to win me over.

My own view on this is that it’s “horses for courses”. There are some circumstances where I’ll distribute material in advance of a presentation and others where the audience have the materials in advance or they’re handed out at the beginning of the session. It really depends on what I’m doing.

If I’m giving a talk to a conference or professional meeting, I don’t give out anything in advance. During my presentations I like to incorporate some element of “surprise” where I interact with the audience and “reveal” points during the presentation. If the audience had copies of the slides (or even a more detailed handout) in advance the effect is ruined. Also, my own experience is that if I’m listening to a presentation where I’ve been given the handout in advance I can’t help but flick ahead of the speaker – I think that would be the case with many other people too.  Anyone who does this is not listening to the speaker – they’re distracted. The counter argument is that if the speaker is interesting this won’t happen, but I’m not convinced.

A few times a year I give lectures to relatively large groups of students studying for a Masters degree. Quite a lot of them are from overseas and not everyone has good English language skills. In this case I do distribute notes at the beginning of the class. But they aren’t copies of the slides. They’re more detailed course notes that they need to read after the lecture. I may refer to specific sections during my talk, but don’t expect the students to sit reading them during the lecture. Even with a large group I try to interact with the audience, asking questions and trying to generate some discussion. I do worry that some of the overseas students may not follow everything I’m saying and that’s something I perhaps need to reflect on in the future.

A lot of my work involves teaching smaller groups (typically 8 to 12) on professional training courses. They’re very intense week long courses with an exam on the last day. There’s a lot to learn so we send out the course manuals a few weeks in advance hoping the delegates will spend some time working through the materials before the course. When I first started training (over 20 years ago now – time flies), the classroom sessions were like lectures where the delegates sat and listened. However, over the years I’ve changed my approach and now try to run them interactively. Due to the amount of material we have to get across its difficult to completely avoid lecturing, but I’m making a lot of effort to turn the classes into workshops wherever possible. Now as we go through the sessions, the majority of the delegates work through the manual, often highlighting sections and making additional notes, but they keep engaged due to the small group size and my approach (with a small group I can tell if anyone is drifting away). It does present some difficulties as I like to throw out questions – to keep the delegates listening and thinking (and stopping them nodding off!). If they have the answer in front of them this can defeat the object! I’ve been reflecting on this and one idea I’ve come up with is to look at modifying the materials so they become more of a workbook with spaces for classroom exercises and the like. It would take some work to modify the course notes, but it’s something I’m looking to try out in the near future.

My own experience suggests that it’s wrong to generalise about when to distribute materials. It really depends on the situation. We need to be flexible and adapt to circumstances.

Who needs Powerpoint?

May 28, 2010

I do, but only sometimes.

It seems that everyone expects speakers/trainers/teachers to have a deck of Powerpoint slides to use when they’re talking. They’re often badly designed and used poorly, but they can be a useful way of making a talk more visual and interesting. However, they can also be a distraction and if overused their impact is reduced.

I probably overuse Powerpoint. It’s easy to do this. Preparing a talk or session on a training course can easily turn into preparing a set of slides which form the structure of the talk and end up being used a speaker prompts. The problem with this is that your talk starts to follow a rigid framework imposed by the default Powerpoint template. I think that Nancy Duarte and Garr Reynolds have it right when the recommend “going analogue” when preparing a talk – i.e. using paper to plan it out. This can free your thought process and allow you to think about how to present your ideas without getting stuck in a Powerpoint induced rut..

From an audience point of view, watching contiuuous streams of slides projected on a screen can become tedious. Its much more interesting if there is some variety in the way material is put across. You’re more likely to keep their attention.

I’ve been running a course this week. It was a revision course for occupational hygienists preparing to take an examination. A lot of topics were covered during the week. For the first three days I’d used some slides for some, but not all of the sessions. I’d tried to avoid too many “lectures” and involved the delegates in discussions and group activities.

On the fourth day of the course we started with an open session. I’d asked the delegates to go through past some exam questions the previous evening and decide which questions they’d like to talk through in the class. This meant that I only had a broad view of we’d need to talk about. The session inevitably threw up some topics where the delgates didn’t have much knowledge and were looking to me to help them fill the gaps. I could have started opening up relevant presentations from my laptop but instead we just had a general discussion and where I needed to fill in some details I relied on description and the old fashioned “talk and chalk” approach, using a flip chart. It was really refreshing to do this from my perspective and the delegates seemed to like it too.

I didn’t switch the projector on all day . For the other sessions I used techniques such as brainstorming, breakout groups an, where I had to “lecture” I stuck with the flip chart.

Slideware such as Powerpoint is a useful tool, but it’s only one item in our toolbox. Unfortunately it’s overused. Its refreshing to use other techniques and I think we all benefited from a “Powerpoint free” day.

Last year I updated to Office 2007, mainly because I wanted to take advantage of a new feature in Powerpoint. One problem with older versions is that when running a screenshow, what was on the projected image was whatever was showing on the computer screen This has two main disadvantages

  • when switching between programs the viewers can see whatever is on your desktop – including things that you may not necessarily want them to see
  • I could only see the current slide on my computer screen – making it difficult to know what was coming next (unless I ran off a hard copy of the slides – or had a very good memory

Powerpoint 2007, however, allows you to use a “Presenter view” where the current slide is projected while the computer screen shows the current slide plus a ribbon of other slides in the presentation plus any notes that go along with the current slide. This is great as it allows me to skip slides and move backwards and forwards within the presentation without the viewers being aware that I’m doing this. I can also use the notes to remind me of key points thereby avoiding the temptation to adopt the bad practice of creating slides with bullet points that are used as prompts. So I think that this is a great improvement and I’ve been using the presenter view for the past 6 months or so.

The feature relies on the activation of “multiple monitors” within Windows. It won’t work unless this feature is set up on the computer.  This creates a number of problems for me

  1. I can’t rehearse using the Presenter view on my desktop computer which isn’t set up for multiple monitors.
  2. I have not been able to work out how to show videos or photographs unless they are embedded in a Powerpoint slide. I’ve found that Powerpoint can give me problems with videos that don’t work properly (if at all!) when they’re embedded, so I prefer to show them using an independent program. I can’t do this and have had quite a few frustrations with embedded videos that won’t work without being able to fall back to showing them in Media Player
  3. Sometimes I want to demonstrate something on screen using another program – e.g. a spreadsheet file or a pdf document. Again, I’ve not been able to work out how to do this without resetting the computer so it’s not using dual monitors.

I’m sure there are ways to get round these problems, but, as usual, Windows Help is next to useless (actually, that’s not true – it IS useless). I’m not a great fan of Microsoft and its because of things like this. They’ve included something very useful in Powerpoint with the Presenter view – but it’s not been thought through properly from the point of view of the user. Ce’st la vie!