Friday, 14 September 2012

WSP Rant #3 - “There are no dangerous Powerpoints; there are only dangerous presenters”

Having vented against delinquent teachers in the audience and mix-ups and mishaps by organisers, it’s now time to turn attention to that poor person who has to stand in front of a crowd of more strangers than expected who are most likely disgruntled about losing their free time for an ‘irrelevant’ session. Yes, time to take a bite out of the presenters….

Wait! That’s Shelly Terrell! She’s one of the best ones!! - Image by @clivesir via eltpics

(Please note: this should all be taken tongue-in-cheek rather than seriously. Don’t forget I occasionally present sessions myself and at some point have been guilty of some of the things mentioned in this post… so there).

Let me start (or continue as this is the third paragraph) with a confession. I ask that you do not judge or ridicule but that you hear me out. You see, the thing is….

…I actually like using PowerPoint…

There we are - I said it! PowerPoint is one of my favourite software tools to use. Sure, I’ve flirted with Prezi and other web 2.0 seductresses from time to time, but I keep coming back to good old PowerPoint asking for forgiveness. I use it as a backdrop when doing workshops and presentations, I use it in class to present and revise grammar and vocabulary and I use it to make presentations for my school website. I dabble with different themes, animations and transitions and embed images, videos and sound files to supplement the text.

And yet I find PowerPoint has a bit of a bad reputation amongst conference goers and the public at large. We hear of “Death by PowerPoint” as poor helpless teachers, having already lost a Saturday off, are subjected to slide after slide of uninspiring text, charts and statistics. It’s so bad, some of them have no recourse but to look at their mobile phones or chat to the people around them in order to avoid the cold creeping hand of PowerPoint Death. When the life-threatening danger has passed, out-dated clip art and overuse of bullet points and the Comic Sans MS font become the target of ridicule.

But it’s not really a PowerPoint problem, is it? It’s simply poor/deadly use of a simple tool. After all, a cricket bat may be used to play a game invoking rose-tinted memories of fine English gentlemen relaxing in the village green on a Sunday afternoon or it may be used rather more bluntly to bludgeon someone to death. Conversely, a machete could be lethally used to hack someone to pieces but it may also be a valuable device to cut your way through dense tracks of jungle in a bid for survival.

In the case of PowerPoint, it is a handful of presenters who are to blame as they load their slides with bullet-pointed text summarising quite specific academic research and proceed to read it to us for an hour. It’s not the software, it’s not the content - it’s the presentation itself that is the problem.

Nor is it just a matter of design. One conference I attended at some unspecified point in the past featured a speaker who projected a very slick and visually appealing slideshow: the theme used looked very professional and left ample room for the content; the images selected were clear and relevant; and the slides were not overloaded with text. However, the presentation itself was poor. At times, the presenter did not seem to know what was coming on the next slide and frequently spent long pauses shuffling through notes. We were then informed that the next few slides would show quotes from participants in a research programme. “Don’t worry,” came the assurance. “I won’t read it all out to you. I’ll give you a few moments to view the comments yourselves.” That sounded promising but then the slide appeared with a photo to represent the person the quote had come from along with a paragraph of about ten lines… and then it was gone as the presenter clicked on the the next slide. And then the next one! Now, people can read quietly faster than someone can read aloud but nobody can read that fast! At first, I tried not to show any reaction as that fear of looking like the simpleton who couldn’t keep up kicked in. However, murmurs of discontent soon rippled round the crowd and the presenter lost the audience after that.

At the same event, another presenter appeared with a much more basic PowerPoint: no theme, just a white background; Comic Sans MS in a variety of bright colours; and a selection of clip art that suggested use of Windows 95. But crucially, this time the bullet points were concise and relevant and the speaker was informative, engaging and interesting. There was hardly a mobile phone in sight and barely a bored puff to be heard.

At the end of the day, we should remember what we always hear about technology in the classroom - it’s not the tool itself that teaches, presents, engages (or bores); it’s how it is put to use and who puts it to use that makes the difference. If you’ve got something interesting to say, people will listen. If you’ve got something to read or got something that you’ve forgotten the contents of, people are going to switch off.

10 comments:

  1. I remember attending a talk in Paris and one the speakers completed some research and he had about 70 slides full of information. I started losing interest 10 minutes into it. It was full of academic data and he was reiterating all the information on the slides, basically reading what he had on it. I'm sure he had some point to his research but I can't remember the speaker's name, let alone the content.

    Personally, I prefer to use Keynote rather than PowerPoint. I find it easier to use a fresh change compared to all those talks using PowerPoint. I used it for my IATEFL Talk. I hope I am also one of the good ones when giving talks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Context is another thing that bugs me. I don't mind academic style presentations if the conference/event is academic in nature but if it's supposed to be a practical session for practicing teachers, it can quickly become boring. Even worse are the times when what is billed as a 'workshop' becomes just another monologue...

      As for Keynote/powerpoint/Prezi etc, I think they are best used when those in attendance don't notice the difference. After all, they are (or should be) just a visual backdrop.

      Delete
    2. Another time I attended a conference at a university in Bucharest. It was great overall and there were a handful of people that focused on ELT. We were taken to a separate area and others were split off to other areas with focus on applied linguistics, culture, etc.

      Speakers were meant to speak for about 10 minutes, then it was the next speaker. The first speaker took the floor for about 25 minutes. I kept looking at my watch as I had to return back to work and it was getting quite stressful. Fortunately, I was the third speaker so I thought the second speaker would be quite quick. This was not the case.

      The second speaker who was speaking about grammar translation prepared no powerpoint but started reading off her notes. It was also all in Romanian, which defeated the whole object of trying to talk about ELT and grammar translation. I think the other teachers present were also not Romanian, so we had to sit twiddling our thumbs until the lady finished speaking for 20 minutes.

      Next it was myself, and I prepared the powerpoint slides and had to really run through the talk as I had a taxi to collect in 15 minutes. So for me, if you are sharing a talk between other speakers, it is sometimes really annoying when the other speakers decide not shirk their time-management.

      Delete
    3. Ah, yes - time management! That could be another rant in itself!!

      I think there is potential in the three speakers per session approach you describe above and it's one I believe IATEFL are planning to include in future conferences. Of course, it's success is dependent on each talk having a common theme and good time management to avoid the aıtuation you describe above.

      Delete
  2. I am now off to delete all my bullet points!
    (This is actually true as I have been working on a powerpoint for a workshop this afternoon and every single slide has bullet points, when they probably really shouldn't...) Thank you for this very useful reminder!

    I have been to a few national conferences and I tend to pick the "workshops" as I physically can't stay alert from 9 am to 6 pm just listening to people talk. Luckily, the plenary is usually excellent! However I did go to a semi-plenary (whatever that is) by a very famous ELT writer who seemed very nice but proceeded to read everything on the powerpoint. Needless to say I was very disappointed. I am sure this person is an excellent public speaker but on this occasion it was ruined by the fact that I could just read the slides without listening.

    I think generally that the hourly slots given are too long - the "three speakers per session" sounds like a refreshing alternative. I explicity chose to do a "talk" rather than a "workshop" at an event next month because it was an hour rather than 90 mins. I hope the attendees will be up for some participation though - I really wouldn't want to put them through an hour and a half - and I am certainly not entertaining enough to keep them interested for so long!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't think bullet points are the problem either. ıt's the mis-use or over-use of them that's the issue.

      It is interesting that the talks at a lot of conferences seem to last an hour while the workshops are foten only given 45 minutes in which time it is impossible to do anything other than demo one activity or discuss a couple of questions.

      Delete
  3. Comic Sans is the worst font to use ever (followed closely by Rage Italic). Quirkiness can be achieved in other ways. Sigh.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I do like a bit of Comic Sans - the kids seem to find it easy to read. The same is not true of rage italic though!

      Delete
  4. Totally agree, Dave. Don't blame PowerPoint, blame the content/creator. Ppt is, in fact, a very powerful tool, but most people use only 10%, if so, of what it can do. Personally, I don't like Prezi. A presentation tool should be just that - a tool to help you present, to back up your words with images, for example. And PowerPoint is plenty.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've used Prezi a couple of times. The first time I risked inducing seasickness amongst my audience I think but the second time was better - I used the conference poster which featured lots of balloons. I then 'hid' my images and video clips inside the balloons. However, powerpoint is easier to use so most of the time, I just stick with that.

      Delete

Thanks for commenting! Your comment will appear after Dave has approved it. :-)