Recently, in a reply tweet to @shellTerrell (Shelly) I referred to an article I had written called ’10 things I hate about powerpoint.’ This was originally published on the ‘Humanising Language Teaching‘ website and in ‘The Teacher Trainer‘, a journal published by Pilgrims.
The power of re-tweeting! Shelly re-tweeted the url for the article and pretty soon lots of other people had done the same – because we have all sat through some pretty terrible powerpoint shows in the past (well the phrase ‘death by powerpoint’ has to have been coined for some reason!)
Quite a few tweeters have asked me to put the article on my blog so that they can comment, and so I am doing this now, with two caveats:
1 This is not a new article, although as a frequent conference goer I don’t see that things have changed that much since I wrote it some time ago, and
2 Powerpoint? I have become a passionate convert to ‘Keynote’, Apple’s powerpoint equivalent. But the comments about powerpoint in this article are essentially the same for keynote users too.
So anyway, if you have things you would like to say about powerpoint, here is your chance. Over to you.
Ok, this is how it goes. I was at an international conference recently (I go to a lot of conferences) and I found myself in conversation with a colleague at the end of a long conference day. And we started rolling our eyes and groaning and generally being a bit melodramatic about the presentations we’d been to. Which is not very kind. But we weren’t complaining about the content of the talks and we certainly weren’t having a go at the presenters (people in glass houses….). No, what we were moaning about was death-by-powerpoint, the sheer ubiquity of that Microsoft platform that can induce catatonia in the liveliest mind – quite apart from the damage it can do to the sleepy middle-aged one that I am forced to carry around.
And the more I experience Powerpoint, and the more I think about it, the more overheated I become. Why, I can feel myself getting all steamed up even as I type. And the reason I’m getting worked up is because there are ten things about powerpoint that I absolutely hate. I mean hate, OK?
1 Powerpoint as lecture notes
Sitting in the front row at a big conference recently I remember feeling trapped and tortured with that desperate urge for escape which you know is impossible. And then you feel like screaming or carving up texbooks or even teachers. What brought about this madness? The little figure on the powerpoint screen which said 4/52. That meant there were another 48 slides to go (think about it! FORTY-EIGHT). And the sad thing is that the fabulous educator was using the slides as her lecture notes. But I don’t want to see a presenter’s notes. I want to see how they come out the other end as discourse when the presenter is in full flow.
And the other terrible thing is that if a presenter chucks up what they are going to say on a slide, before they say it (and they often do) you can read it in 45 seconds – and then what’s the point of listening at all?
Powerpoint offers so much more than this: a chance to show pictures, play music clips, show video clips of teaching. But it’s a lousy reading machine unless the words are used as signs or staging posts to structure a talk.
2 Visual assault
Pictures, flashes, whizzy entrances, funny faces. It can all get far far too much. Sometimes you want to hear what’s in the presenter’s brain, not be dazzled by a kind of pyrotechnic ejaculation.
Ooops! Myself I use pictures and animation a lot. That’s what powerpoint is so damn good for – a whole visual vocabulary that overhead transparencies could and can never match. The images from a data projector can be so much clearer, so much sharper and cleaner. If you’ve ever seen a presentation given first with OHTs and then again with the pictures on a Powerpoint slide you’ll know what I mean.
But I’ll need to re-evaluate what I do with pictures and animation. Someone told me I was overdoing it the other day so I’ll have to get feedback to see if other people think I’m also guilty of visual overload. Hmmm
3 Aural assault
Thwack! Zing! Bzzzz! Kerpow! Wow. There’s one presenter I know who is totally brilliant and loved almost everywhere he goes. His powerpoint presentations literally erupt into the room and if there’s a new gizmo to be had, he’ll have it. And then he’ll chuck in all the latest VERY LOUD sound effects. I can only take about 30 minutes of this before my head starts exploding. But you can’t walk out. It’s rude! It’s just that aural overload is horible.
Ooops! Myself I use music clips in almost every presentation I do (if I can find some daft excuse to include them). It’s not just for the ‘Auditory’ people in the audience, it’s for my own enjoyment too – a total self-indulgence. But maybe it’s too much for everyone else. I’ll have to get some feedback.
But one of the great things about Powerpoint is that you can bring in little audio and video clips at the click of a mouse. All you need is to download some audio editing freeware, the simplest kind, and you can cut little excerpts from audio tracks and give them fade-ins and fade-outs so that they sound good. Even I can do that so it can’t be very technically challenging.
4 Bullet points
If I never see another bullet point again I will be
They’re everywhere in Microsoft’s Powerpoint template and they screw up the hierarchy of information. And they’re boring. And there are other means of showing the much more subtle ways that different bits of information relate to each other. Powerpoint – with its animation and varied letter shapes – gives the users a myriad of means in which to show main and subsidiary points. I mean one of its greatest tricks is to allow material to arrive and fade away and then reappear. That’s using the medium properly. Bullet points aren’t. They’re for paper, not for an animate screen.
5 Powerpoint backgrounds
Oh please spare me from another wishy-washy Microsoft background with a translucent globe or the intimations of water or any of the other lacklustre visual ‘washes’ that the designers have chucked in there. The moment you see one of those your heart sinks and you know the user has just taken something off the shelf, and lecture notes (see above) are probably on the way. I’d much rather see a blank or monochrome background. There’s a reason why the walls in many art galleries are plain white. You can do some much more with visual presentation if you don’t have to worry about clashing with some Gatesian view of subtle harmony.
6 Early closing
This really gets me mad. I mean mad. Oh dear I’m overheating again. But I get all steamed up when a presenter finishes their talk and the moment – I mean the second – any applause stops they start clicking away and closing up their powerpoint so we can all see the programme and their desktop. I reckon that’s just plain rude – especially if the presenter has put their email or website address up there and some poor teachers are scrabbling away to try and write them down.
You wouldn’t expect an orchestra to start folding up their music stands before the audience had even got out of their seats at the end of a concert. They wait till the hall is pretty much empty. So why do presenters look like they care so little? Leave the last screen up there until people have left the room. It’s good manners.
7 Lecturers who stand in front of the projector
I reckon it should be easy to spot the difference between a human-being and a machine. One walks and breathes and talks, the other just beams. They don’t mix. They are different media. But presenters often stand right in that beam so we can all see the coursebook excerpt being projected slithering all over their tie or their dress or whatever. And it’s kind of irritating.
And we all (I mean us presenters) do it.
8 Lecturers who are stuck to the computer
Look what Powerpoint can do to a person! When you speak to them in the breaks, or they are talking about their presentation they are all animated, they move around, they seem to function perfectly well as breathing humans. And then they give their sessions and they turn into statues with only one moving part, an index finger which goes click click, jabbing downwards – the only sign of life in the paralysed creature in front of us.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. Cordless clickers and controllers are easily available. They can have a range of thirty metres, big enough for a presenter to stride around in just about any room or hall. The moment you get one you morph from paralysis back into teacherdom. It’s a great feeling.
Ooops! Except a colleague said to me the other day – when I had presented in a room which was very cramped (and thus didn’t allow for any wandering about) – well it was nice to see you stay in one place just for once instead of galloping around. I don’t like statues, but maybe striding the aisles can be just as irritating. I’ll have to get some feedback on that.
9 Technology experts
I’ve been to a couple of sessions recently where people got really really excited (almost indecently) about all the wonderful new chunks of hardware and software that are on offer. Interactive Whiteboards – swoon – Google maps – ooooh – computer-mediated communication – aaaaah! And what did we see on the screen? Lecture notes. Bullet points. Ugly little pictures coming up – splat – on a vacuous background. Why do technology fetishists make such a mess of it I wonder? Perhaps it’s because when they talk about the technology they sometimes forget to remember that it’s teaching they should be talking about – fitting the technology to the child, not the child to the technology as the British academic Susan Greenfield said in the House of Lords (Britain’s second legislative chamber) the other day.
Of course not all IT experts are like this. Far from it. We all know people who are brillinat at using the resources they have to hand. They know what I also believe which is that if technology is your thing then you are sort of obliged to show it in its best pedagogic light. The medium, in this case, really is the message.
10 Technology failure
It happens. It’s always happened. The tape recorder doesn’t work. The OHP goes phutt! as the bulb explodes. The video/DVD player has a monster sulk.
Computer’s do it too. They freeze when you try and engage Media Player or they go all funny when you bring in a music clip. And if – as happened to me in Abbottabad last Autumn – the electricity goes, you’re back where you started: just a presenter and two hundred teachers, and the fans have stopped working in the fetid heat and there’s still sixty-three minutes to go and they’re looking at you expectantly….
And then, once the panic disappears you suddenly remember what it is to be a teacher.
Phew. I’ve got all that off my chest then. I feel much better now, thank you for asking. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m actually a huge fan of Powerpoint. I use it all the time. It allows me to add extra dimensions to teaching and presenting that were never previously available. But I’m still a novice, really, and probably irritate people with the way I used the medium just as much as people (as you have seen) irritate me. So I need your feedback (see above). Which is why if you see me presenting at a conference and I make a mess of it do come and tell me. I’m sure I’ll be pleased to hear from you.