The abuse of PowerPoint has been in the news recently, but it is never far from the thoughts (or deeds) of conference-weary academics like myself. We sit through, and often inflict on others, endless presentations, typically in the form of monotone recitations of vacuous generalizations, or worse, dense paragraphs, plastered on the screen in front of us as bullet points. We squint at giant tables with tiny numbers. Our minds reel as equations fly by. It is enough to make you want to cry out “Chicken, Chicken, Chicken”.
Here is some simple advice I give my students, and try to follow myself, on the proper use of PowerPoint. Some of it was inspired by Edward Tufte, some is my own invention.
1. The center of attention for any speech should be the speaker. Speak in a way that connects to your audience. Make gestures and facial expressions. Look at them, not at a screen. A talk should be, above all, a form of human interaction.
2. If you have complex data, like large tables or long equations, put them in a paper handout, and distribute this to your audience. You can put much more on a page than on a computer screen, and your listeners will appreciate the opportunity to examine this information at their own pace. If I must display a table in Powerpoint, I try to have no more than eight cells, less if possible. This often requires ruthless paring and simplification.
3. The main purpose of PowerPoint should be to make the architecture of a talk more transparent to the listeners. The problem with oral communication is that, while it can be extremely engaging on a moment-to-moment basis, it is difficult to follow the structure of a long, complex argument. PowerPoint can help. Begin with a slide or two that presents the roadmap for the talk as a whole. Insert periodic slides that indicate where you are in this journey as you proceed. Most slides should serve to convey the structure of particular sub-points—mini-roadmaps, in a sense.
4. Slides should not be free-standing; they should not convey your argument apart from your verbal presentation. Bullet points, if you use them, should be compressed into as few words as possible, just enough to identify (but not explain) the ideas they refer to. (The bullet point for this recommendation could be “identification, not explanation”.) And never, never, never read the bullet points out loud to your audience. The center of attention should be on you, not the slides.
5. Think of each slide as a two-dimensional space, to be organized in a way that conveys the intellectual structure of your argument. In general, a list with equal indentation conveys logical parallelism. The vertical dimension of a list may convey sequence, but this usually needs to be indicated explicitly, for instance with arrows. A picture in the right column with several brief phrases in the left column says that these phrases pertain in a parallel or perhaps sequential way to the situation depicted in the picture. Indentation, on the other hand, implies either a subset/superset or supporting/supported relationship. When relationships between ideas are more complex than this, consider placing phrases in various locations on your slide, using boxes and arrows to make their interconnections clear.
6. Never, ever make a slide more complex than absolutely necessary. Abjure all of PowerPoint’s fancy bells and whistles. Keep fonts and color schemes as simple as possible. You want to your audience to glance at the slides periodically but pay attention primarily to you.
7. The reason so many PowerPoint presentations are dull is because a content-poor visual medium has become the center of attention. Reading an article or book is much more interesting, because articles and books typically have much more substance than PowerPoint slides. Listening to a lecture without PowerPoint is usually more interesting because of the human engagement audiences can have with a speaker who addresses them directly. So use PowerPoint sparingly: don’t try to replace the role of a written text, and don’t distract audiences from your communication with them. It should add a little clarity and a bit of variety to your talk, nothing more.