I know how many folks scoff at the use of PowerPoint as being passé or perhaps too corporate. I honestly think it gets a bad rap. It isn't the tool that's bad, in my opinion. Slides can be used in a way that help you more effectively communicate your ideas in a visual manner and “speak” to your audience. I want to create visually pleasing slides, but I also need to communicate information as well – particularly when, as with this conference, presenters are encouraged to post their slides on the conference Web site.
How then can we communicate effectively and provide conference attendees with the takeaways they need?
Starting points for effective slides
There are a number of great resources that provide guidance on designing powerful slide presentations. I particularly like Garr Reynold’s Presentation Zen approach. Nancy Duarte’s Slideology also provides a more technical, but no less inspiring approach. We know that there are some helpful general rules for creating effective slide presentations for conferences and teaching:
- No complete sentences on the slides
- No more than 3-5 bullets or ideas per slide (a single key idea is best)
- High quality visuals should connect well with and augment the key idea from the slide
All you need to do is watch the next keynote from an Apple event or check out some of the examples from the sites above, and you’ll see some visually stunning presentations. Unfortunately, these kinds of presentations may not provide the depth of information (on screen at least) that a conference presentation or class session demands.
What’s a professor to do?
Leverage the handout
One particular concept from Garr Reynolds that has stuck with me for years and has made a huge difference for me is to avoid the “slideument.” A slideument occurs when we try to include all the content for a presentation within our slides. We’ve all experienced this, and many of us are probably guilty of creating one. You know what I mean – 19 bullet points on a slide in roughly 14 pt font. When we do this, we create lousy looking slides. They’re also overwhelming. Richard Mayer’s research on multimedia learning explains through 10 different principles why this approach is a bad idea and wildly ineffective for communicating our ideas.
What Reynolds argues is that when we approach our slides this way, what we’ve really done is created a presentation and document in one. Unfortunately, these presentations are neither effective slides nor documents. They’re slideuments. He explains that:
- “Projected slides should be as visual as possible and support our points quickly, efficiently and powerfully.”
- Handouts are completely different and should highlight key ideas, provide references, and essentially synthesize the message we are trying to convey.
When we develop both slides and handouts separately, we can leverage the power of both much more than when we merge them.
Slides and handouts
I think of the slides as a visual representation of the ideas I hope to convey in a way that helps the participants to connect with the content on a different level. I try to use big, bold images with as little text as possible. This tends to draw in the audience much more effectively than densely packed slides. Here is the slide deck from my 21st century skills presentation as an example.
I see the handout as a takeway – something attendees or students can take with them after the session. Ideally, the handout will have a similar visual feel to the presentation and inspire the reader to think further about the ideas or experience. This handout from New Orleans synthesizes the key points and provides a copy of the Higher Education Learning Activity Types taxonomy that we used in the session. This handout I created for a Lilly Conference last Spring is more action-oriented and supported the interactivity in the session.
I’ve always got more to learn and develop with my presentations, but through deliberate practice and the great ideas from others, I’m making progress. Breaking apart the slides and handout is a great first step.
What are your best tips for effective presentations?
Please post your comments below.