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Missing the PowerPoint of public speaking

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Column The oxymoron "interesting PowerPoint presentation" was offered as a small witticism a few months back. I thought it was good, and shared it with a friend, who reacted angrily: "Blame the workman, not the tools," he said. Frankly, (I told him) I disagree. Powerpoint inherently ruins a presentation in 95 per cent of cases.

We've all heard the phrase "death by PowerPoint" - that numbing feeling the brain suffers as confusing slide after confusing slide follow one another. I have to do a lot of public speaking, and am one of those lucky people who think on their feet, without being afflicted by terror. But I couldn't help feeling that the good feedback I got from audiences wasn't just because I was a brilliant speaker. I'm not!

The common factor between my own presentations and others which were far better informed, researched and presented, was that they used PowerPoint and I didn't. Eventually, it dawned on me that PowerPoint really does ruin a good speech.

Academic research seems to back up my analysis. Professor John Sweller of the University of New South Wales said: "If you have ever wondered why your eyes start glazing over as you read those dot points on the screen, as the same words are being spoken, take heart in knowing there is a scientific explanation - it is more difficult to process information if it is coming at you in the written and spoken form at the same time."

My own dissertation, which I posted in a private CIX conference in 2005, said: "The problem is knowing when visuals are a help and when they aren't. There are indeed a few situations - of the 'blackboard notes' lecture type - where PowerPoint is actually useful - where you want to have your audience stop and write down what you're saying.

"It's not rocket science. If you want your audience's attention, don't distract them."

Blackboard note-giving, I suspect, is more useful than most speakers allow for. If they did that, they'd find Powerpoint useful. But, of course, they don't. They fall between two stools.

What they actually do is to put up a slide which, if the audience had time to write it down, consider, and study it, would be useful information. But, because they are presenting they feel they have to be entertaining, and they can't just shut up and let you make notes - which makes it hard to focus, either on the screen or on what the speaker is saying.

I have a very simple rule: If you want to illustrate your talk with the occasional amusing cartoon, do...but don't make the mistake of doing that at the same time as you try to make a technical or sales point.

Professor Sweller goes further and says notes should not be read aloud off the blackboard: "The use of the PowerPoint presentation has been a disaster. It should be ditched. It is effective to speak to a diagram, because it presents information in a different form. But it is not effective to speak the same words that are written, because it is putting too much load on the mind and decreases your ability to understand what is being presented."

Of course, if you are not a confident public speaker, notes can help. I would actually recommend using PowerPoint in preparation and then using it purely as an aide memoire.

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