At the conference on REACH I attended a few weeks ago, as usual, all the speakers used slides crammed with information – far too much to cover in the short time slots they were allocated.  In every case they either moved  through the slides too quickly (so the audience didn’t have time to finish reading the individual slides) or ended up skipping and missing a number of slides.

Why do they do this?

I think that one of the reasons is that speakers at conferences usually have a limited time slot, but have a lot of information they want to communicate. By cramming information onto slides you reduce the total number and fool yourself into thinking that the amount of material you are trying to get across is manageable in the time available. It’s a little like burying your head in the sand. The problem of too much material disappears – until you try to present it!

Slides should support the presentation – they’re not a substitute for it. However, where they are used they need to be well designed if they are to perform their function effectively. I think that most presenters don’t put too much thought into that aspect of their presentation. They tend to default to using the standard Powerpoint template that focuses on using words, structured as bullets and sub-bullets.

Research has shown that its better to minimise the number of words on a slide and to use pictures or other visuals where possible. I don’t intend to go into it here, but there is a good explanation of the theory in a recent post on Olivia’s Mitchell’s blog “Speaking about Presentation” which includes a summary of some recent work by Chris Atherton, a cognitive psychologist from the University of Central Lancashire.

Some good advice on slide design is available also available  in a number of books such as Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson, Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds and Slideology by Nancy Duarte.

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!

Watched this remote presentation on remote presentation by Nancy Duarte


Although its mainly aimed at teleconference type presentations, many of the points she makes should be applicable to other situations.

This year I’ve started to get more involved in running tele-tutoials and web based tutorials and I can see this aspect of my work increasing in  the future. Quite a lot of what she has to say could be applied to these forums.

Her points on the design of slides and how to structure the presentation are also relevant to presentations for Slideshare and other situations where there isn’t a human presenter.

Another book, which together with Garr Reynold’s “Presentation Zen” has revolutionised ideas on the design of presentations is “Slide:ology” by Nancy Duarte. This brief video gives an outline of her key ideas.

YouTube – Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte |Book Brief.

Again, the approach is particularly appropriate  for keynote or sales presentations to larger groups but the principles can also be applied to slides used for teaching and training.

I attended the Open University North West Associate Lecturer’s conference in Manchester yesterday. Overall, it was a good, well organised event. The highlight of the day was the keynote address given by Professor Robin Williams, entitled “Communicating Mathematics”. This may not sound very promising, but he delivered a very entertaining talk with lots of god examples on the different methods that have been used to communicate mathematics to audiences – both specialist and non-specialist.

The difficulties of getting a complex message to a diverse group was stressed and lessons from the history of the Open University were provided.  His conclusion was that research to expand knowledge is important but it was also vital to engage with non-specialists and communicate the findings to the general public. This is something that the Open University has done in recent years for a number topics in science and maths with its involvement with programmes such as “Coast” (which has been a highly successful series), “Rough Science”  and “The Story of Mathematics” produced jointly with the BBC.

His talk was excellent, interesting and well delivered – but his visual aids were very poor. The particular problems I noted were

  • The room was very large and the seating arrangement meant that many of the attendees were quite a distance from the screen used to project his slides. The screen was also really too small.
It was difficult to see the slides from the back of the room

It was difficult to see the slides from the back of the room

  • The slides themselves were old fashioned viewfoils. Some of them hand written. Given that the use of high quality projected slides has been the “standard” for quite a few years, this in itself does not create a good impression. It can suggest that the speaker has “cobbled together” his talk.
  • The projector wasn’t really powerful enough for such a large room so the slides looked very dim
  • The typeface used for the words on the slides was too small. It would have been difficult for someone sitting relatively close to the front to read them – it was almost impossible for someone at the back of the room
A small font size makes the words difficult to read

A small font size makes the words difficult to read

  • The slides were portrait while the screen was landscape. In a number of cases the bottom of the slide was not projected on to the screen
THe bottom of the slide is not projected onto the screen

The bottom of the slide is not projected onto the screen

I’d much rather sit through a good talk with poor visuals than a poor one with flashy slides. Nevertheless, where visual aids are used its better if some time and attention is paid to them so that they are effective.

Talk by Garr Reynolds

April 3, 2009

Garr Reynolds has set the agenda on the desgn of Powerpoint slides with his book “Presentation Zen”. In this talk, given to Google, he discusses the key points from his book.

YouTube – Authors@Google: Garr Reynolds.

His approach works well for keynote type presentations to larger groups and the general prinicples can be applied to slides used for teaching and training too.

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!