In Seven Words or Less: You’re Probably Using Microsoft PowerPoint Wrong

You’re Probably Using Microsoft PowerPoint Wrong

You’ve probably sat through a presentation or lecture featuring a PowerPoint at least once in your educational career. So, it might surprise you (or not) to know that, since 2015, there’s been a movement to ban PowerPoint presentation from lectures.

In 2015, professor Bent Meier Sørensen of Copenhagen University wrote an article titled “Let’s ban PowerPoint in lectures – it makes students more stupid and professors more boring.” In it, he claimed that PowerPoints, among other factors, affects the learning process and, contrary to its purpose, does not empower the academia. Instead of providing students with ideas and problems they should discuss, they are provided with ideas written in bullet points, providing little room for discussing except for the lecturer. He claims that it’s why class interaction has gone down in the past few years.

But what if the problem isn’t with PowerPoints? What if the problem really stems from the fact that many lectures are using it wrong?


Blame the User, Not the Program

Blame the User, Not the ProgramInstead of blaming PowerPoint – built for the purpose of effective and convenient visual aid instead of having to hand-write visual aids on manila paper before sticking it on walls – we have to look at whether or not the presenter is doing a good job of speaking in front and effectively communicating the lesson to his audience.

In Sørensen’s example, he talked about how he had a class full of sleeping, listless, and anxious students, and his response to that was to continue reading from his PowerPoint and continuing with the class. That has less to do with the PowerPoint program itself, and more with how the presenter created the PowerPoint and how he managed to incorporate it into his presentation.

Perhaps the solution isn’t to ban PowerPoint completely, but for teachers and instructors to stop looking at it as a huge part of their lecture, but a visual aid meant to complement the substantial content they personally present to their audience.

I’ve seen my fair share of presenters who leaned too heavily on their PowerPoint, and it made it harder for me to pay attention, made it easy for me to let my mind wander off, and ultimately ruined the entire presentation. From word-heavy slides to gimmicky sounds and motion effects, adding wrong elements into your slides can ruin your visual aid. And you might be guilty of committing some of these errors.


Read from a PowerPoint

PowerPoint has been in classrooms ever since I was in pre-school. I can’t speak for public schools and other private schools, but as early as fifth grade, we used PowerPoint for group and individual reporting and we’ve been taught how to use it properly. And one of the major no-no’s that often got our teachers scolding students when they present? Reading word-for-word out of their slides, offering no extra information, and then thinking that’s a good enough presentation.

If you copy paste a paragraph on the internet or write down everything you want to say into a slide, you’re basically presenting the information visually and then supplementing your slide with you as an audio supplement even though it’s supposed to be the other way around. If that’s what your presentation is going to be, you might as well show them a slide and then give your audience five minutes to jot everything down before moving on to the next one.

presentationThis kind of presentation offers no substantial information. You’re also more likely to reduce audience engagement and hinder learning because it’s boring and you might have done better in dynamics with a simple blackboard and chalk. You offer them words, and unless you don’t have anything else to say, there’s nothing much to add.

Back when PowerPoint was still in its basic form, we were taught to have a PowerPoint that was concise. Instead of putting all the information on one slide and creating information overload, add in only the key points. The rest of the information, you either memorize so you can easily explain the key points while mentioning the rest of the information, or if you really want to make sure you mention everything, put in an index card or anything that serves as your speaker notes. New PowerPoint programs for certain operating systems allow you to put your PowerPoint on display while your laptop shows both the current PowerPoint slide and your speaker notes, removing the need for you to look at the display and focusing your attention on both your speaker notes and the audience.


Adding Too Many Words

Although some people are good at multitasking, the brain wasn’t built to comprehend your silent reading while listening to someone speak. So, if you’re up front and talking while not giving enough time for your audience to read, they’ll have to choose between listening to you or finish reading your slide.

To balance this, you have to limit the words you put in each slide. I don’t recommend the arbitrary 7-by-7 rule which states that you have a limit of 7 bullets with 7 words each because that means you have a maximum of 49 words, and that could take too long for the audience to comprehend, which could distract them from the speaker.

Instead, I recommend using the “billboard rule.” Billboard ads are designed to be concise but understandable quickly before a moving vehicle drives away. As much as possible, you want your audience to understand one idea in a matter of seconds. And because five words can divert your focus for one second, you want around 15 words or a minimum of three seconds for your audience to get distracted.

That’s not to say you can’t add long quotes or important but long text. If you do, however, you need to keep quiet and give your audience time to read it for themselves.


Using Distracting Sound Effects and Transitions

No one in the office or academe will judge you if you choose not to put any transition effects on your PowerPoint presentation where it’s not necessary. They’re more likely to judge you though if you put a slow-moving five-second swivel on each bullet point.

Some transitions are useful – if you’re pitching an idea and you want to hide bullet points while you’re discussing the one before it, for example. But if it’s a lecture or a presentation, waiting for a transition is just time-consuming and sound effects are just distracting and cheesy for the most part.

The first few times, sounds and funny transition can be funny. After a while though, it just gets tiring. It’s why I prefer a simple PowerPoint presentation over Prezi, which is just a fancier PowerPoint that can let you zoom in and zoom out. I’m sure there’s an effective use for Prezi’s features, but I found that students and lecturers who use it tend to forego its zooming features and treat it just like a PowerPoint.


Not Using Blank Slides

Not Using Blank SlidesIf you’re an effective PowerPoint user, you know that there may be some major ideas that don’t really require a slide of its own and is best explained on your own without any visual. Some projectors aren’t equipped to close or stop displaying a slide quickly, so what some lecturers do is continue with their discussion while leaving the slide from the previous point behind them.

This is a distracting practice. PowerPoints are visual aids meant to supplement your discussion, so leaving an old slide filled with information can take away other people’s attention, making your discussion less effective.

When creating the PowerPoint and you see a point where the PowerPoint is not needed, be sure to leave blank slides. If you can’t turn the projector off, at least no one will have a reason to look at the screen instead of focusing on your talk.

I don’t think PowerPoint is what’s affecting audience participation and engagement. What should be improved, however, is how some speakers use PowerPoint as a crutch, not a supplementary visual aid, and depend too heavily on their slides to get them through their presentation. Don’t blame the program, blame the presenters who need a lesson or two on effective presentations.

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