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 http://www.exceloptics.in/newsletter.php


On being emotional

October 28, 2010

A few weeks ago I signed up to the series of  “Outstanding Presentation Workshops” webinars organised by Ellen Finkelstein. So far I’ve watched all of them, either by logging on line or by downloading the video of the broadcasts that Ellen makes available the day after the webinar. They’ve all been very good, with some excellent presenters from the presentation training world in the USA (with one, Olivia Mitchell, from New Zealand).

In her talk, Nancy Duarte stressed that “all business is about presentation” and I think she has hit the nail on the head. Most people in managerial or white collar jobs, the self employed and even many “shop floor” workers have to get their point across to people whether they’re at a large gathering, small meeting or even one to one, and they need good presentation skills  to do this effectively.

Although there are a couple more webinars left in the series, I’ve noted some common themes that have come across from several of the sessions

  • good preparation is essential
  • make sure you have a clear objective
  • focus on the needs of the audience
  • use stories to engage the audience
  • slides are a backdrop to enhance the presentation – they’re not the “main event”
  • any slides or visual aids used should be well designed

I’d agree wholeheartedly with all of these.

In his talk, Jim Endicott made that point that presentations are about persuasion – getting people to think, believe and act differently – and that emotion is a powerful tool for achieving this. However, there is a danger that, unless it is used with caution, the presenter can cross the line into demagogy and manipulation. We see this all too often with some politicians – after all, what’s a political speech is not a presentation?

I’d accept that in the business world presentations are often about persuasion , but I think that there is also another reason Jim didn’t mention. Sometimes they’re about informing and educating, which is what we try to do when we we’re teaching and training.

Admittedly, sometimes persuasion is needed in the classroom – for example when a teacher is trying to get antagonistic students to understand the importance of the subject they’re being taught, or when employees are reluctant to listen to the message being put across in a training session. But where the audience is receptive and keen to learn the presentation isn’t about persuasion .

Good preparation, being careful with the use of visual aids are relevant to all types of presentations. Using stories or case studies to illustrate  the points being made and bring them to life is a good technique when informing and educating. However, although it might be needed when we want to captivate and enthuse our audience, using “emotion” isn’t necessary or relevant where  our objective is to get them to learn or understand. Then, we need to appeal to their intellect.

Oscar Wilde on Exams

October 25, 2010

In examinations the foolish ask questions that the wise cannot answer

After a busy day on Wednesday I logged on to the third “Outstanding Presentation Workshops” webinar organised by Ellen Finkelstein. The presenter was Olivia Mitchell from New Zealand who runs the excellent blog on presentations “Speaking about presenting”.

Olivia concentrated on planning presentations and introduced a planning tool that can help speakers to structure their talk. She stressed the importance of planning as a way of avoiding the common problems with presentations which make them “audience unfriendly”.

The main types of  “audience unfriendly” presentations she identified were

“I’m going to tell you everything”

These are presentations where the speaker overwhelms the audience with information by trying to get across too much detail for the time available . In my experience many conference presentations are like this. The speakers have conducted some research and want to give all the details – even though they normally have a very limited time slot. Their presentation is rushed, so the audience hasn’t had time to absorb one point they move on to the next one. They also usually have too much material for the time available and end up missing out material towards the end of their talk and skimming over their conclusions (having spent too long on less important details at the beginning).

The “grab bag”

Here, the talk is unstructured, consisting of points pulled at random from the speaker’s “bag of goodies” – stories, anecdotes etc . The audience may be entertained, but can be left unfulfilled. The talk by Ben Goldacre at BOHS Conference this year was rather like this. He is an excellent speaker and had a lot of interesting stories and examples, but his talk was unstructured. It was clear that he hadn’t properly researched his audience or planned his talk  to make it relevant to us. He seemed to pull out stock stories in a random manner  as he went along, and he clearly hadn’t decided beforehand which he was going to use. Consequently, although his talk was entertaining, and some good points came across, it wasn’t coherent.

The shopping list

This is the classic “death by Powerpoint” presentation consisting of slide after slide of bullets. In this case the presenter probably prepared his talk and filled in the standard Powerpoint template of headings, bullets and sub-bullets. Effectively the talk is an outline which could (perhaps, should is a better word to use) have been further developed.

All of these problems can be avoided by devoting time to planning the presentation.

Olivia advocated the use of a planning tool, to structure the talk and avoid these problems, and more detail on this can be obtained via her blog. I think the tool would work well for many people. It would be particularly useful for those new to presentations but would still be of benefit to many experienced speakers who are unsure how to plan their talks.

Teaching and presentations

August 31, 2010

Watching the video of the talk given by Garr Reynolds at Duarte Design recently, I picked up on a couple of side comments he made about teaching

  • using a whiteboard rather than slides when teaching
  • good teaching is where the teacher talks less

These are good points and I’ve reflected on similar lines here, here and here.

Teaching shouldn’t just be about talking to learners – they should be engaged. I’ve felt for a long time that a good teacher or trainer will draw his learners into a conversation rather than lecture at them and although classes should be properly planned and prepared the best teachers are flexible in their approach and don’t simply put up lists of points they’ve prepared in advance. That’s why I too, often prefer to use the old-fashioned approach of developing points on a flipchart or whiteboard as a discussion develops.

However, slides do have their uses. There are different teaching situations and what visual aids are appropriate depend on the context. Giving a lecture to a large group of students is not that much different to making a business presentation, and the use of well designed slides is usually a good approach.  With small groups in the classroom, slides still have a role but should be used carefully.


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.