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.

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.

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.

Good Practice for Webinars

December 11, 2009

Last year I started running teletutorials for a Distance Learning Masters course in Occupational Hygiene. The students were spread out across the globe, so it’s not practical to get them together in any other way. I soon found that trying to run them  over the telephone was hard work, so decided to try supporting the discussions with software that allowed me, and the participants, to show Powerpoint presentations and other documents on screen as we talked. Effectively, I’d turned the telephone tutorials into webinars.

This has been a new experience for me, and I’ve very much had to learn as I’ve gone along.  So it was interesting to view a short introductory webinar on:

3 Things Every Presenter Should Know about Webinars | myBrainshark.

presented by Roger Courville, the author of the Virtual Presenter’s Handbook.

The key points for me were

  • Adapt to the medium – i.e. don’t treat the webinar the same as a face to face seminar
  • Engage the participants early and often
  • Break up the presentation – use polls, Q &As and discussion

Actually, I think the 2nd and 3rd points are pretty valid for face to face seminars too. Certianly I try to keep the group involved whenever I run one. So in reality good practice for both types of session is very similar.

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!

Virtual Flip Chart

May 14, 2009


The problem with Powerpoint and the like is that they are passive tools. They’re great for presenting pre-prepared material (if used carefully and the slides are well designed – big ifs!) but don’t allow for input from the audience and for the presenter to display something that arises during the presentation itself.

I’ve believed for a long time that training should be interactive – it should be more like a discussion or conversation than a lecture. One technique I use quite a lot is writing on a flip chart. I either use it to summarise points made during a discussion, to pull together findings and key points from practical exercises or for “brainstorming”.  The problem with this is that my handwriting is not so great and, despite my best efforts, tends to deteriorate as the discussion progresses. So, for a while, I’ve been on the lookout for a software tool I could use as a sort of “virtual” flipchart. As usual, I don’t like paying for anything (especially software!) so I’ve been trying to find a good, but free, program  that would fit the bill. I’ve considered using Freemind, a mindmapping tool that’s been around for a while, but I find that the charts it produces are rather cramped. There are a number of web based tools I’ve tried out, but they’re not really amenable for use in the class, requiring an Internet connection which, in UK hotels, is expensive, and there’s also the risk of the system or connection failing. However, I think I’ve found something that will do the job for me. Dropmind is another online mindmapping tool, but a downloadable desktop version is also available and it looks promising.

As I see it, the positive aspects of using a mindmapping tool on my laptop with a projector include

  • legible charts!
  • the charts can be changed as we go along, something that isn’t really possible with a flip chart
  • the charts produced can be saved for reference in a more convenient format and can be printed out

Inevitably, there are negatives, too. The ones I foresee are

  • using a computer based tool will tie me to the laptop and restrict movement around the room
  • the projector would still be switched on. One of the nice things about using a “real” flipchart is that it introduces variation – turning off the projector makes a nice change.

There are bound to be other pros and cons. I think I’ll give it a try and see how it goes down.