The Big Question is…PowerPoint – What is Appropriate, When and Why?

From The Learning Circuits Blog…for the Month of May 2007…

The Big Question is…
PowerPoint – What is Appropriate, When and Why?

Suggested “Points to Consider” –

  • How should you use PowerPoint differently for different kinds of presentations?
  • Are there times when PowerPoint (or slides in general) are just wrong to use? Conversely, are there times when it’s wrong not to use slides?
  • Are reinforcing bullet points (in text) good in some context? What governs their use?
  • Is there research that supports any of these opinions or is it based on our beliefs having sat through good and bad presentations?
My take… As always – it depends.

The sins of PowerPoint can be manifested in film/video or on flip chart pages, or in a verbal presentation. It’s just the media…not the message. Death by video clips anyone? Death by irrelevance anyone?

As a consistent rule breaker for slides – especially from the pre-PowerPoint days when one rule stated: no more than 7 lines or 35 words.

I asked a staff member to do a little research for me on that after being told for the hundredth time…about THAT rule. This was in the mid-1980s. Seems that in the days before copy machines (I’m guessing here) that audience members in the last row wouldn’t be able to “read your slide” if you broke that 7/35 rule and since they didn’t have a copy of your presentation…well…to keep them engaged they should be able to read the writing on the wall/screen.

So the trick was to put your slides on the floor and from a standing position, read them if you could. If you could – great. If not, fix them.

But I digress….

Is the “media” being used for Communications to create Awareness…and/or get the viewer to take the next step…?

Or for Education to create Knowledge…?

Or for Training to create Skill fluency…Performance Competence…?

Whether the content in a Lesson Map (of Instructional Activities – IAs) is at the awareness level, the knowledge level, or the skill level AND is intended to be an “info” chunk of content…or a “demo” chunk…or an “appo” chunk…the media needs to support the design’s instructional intentions, and handle any likely constraints of the deployment.

I use PowerPoint slides for the Info IAs.
And to set up the Demo IAs.
And to set up and provide step-by-step instructions for the Appo IAs…Appos = Application Exercises….as in Tell Them(Info), Show Them (Demo), and Have Them Show You Back in an application exercise: simulation/ case study/ discussion/ quiz/ test (Appo).

Is PowerPoint being used because it’s easy and economical? Should it be used because it can be easy and economical?

If so…use it. But mix it up. Use of “slides” with two-way conversations, flip charting, white boarding, team and individual interactions…games…Variety – the spice of life.

But not endless variation for no other reason than to vary…

Patterns…Good learners, like good analysts are “pattern recognition” experts. Either the media helps them learn quickly by repeating information in “a pattern” – but that is only important if there is a real potential pattern to the content…such as in Product Knowledge content, or Policy content.

Bullet points are very appropriate for a quick list of top product features – and/or a bullet list of potential benefits of each feature might also be appropriate…in a learning content…and perhaps in a performance context. Would the sales person scan those just prior to the sales call, or before that in preparing for the call? Or before that in preparing for the training session role play?

Bullets may also be good in #1 up-front “advanced organizers” and in #3 “final summaries”…but not always are they sufficient for #2 “the body” – as in – 1-tell them what you are going to tell them, 2-tell them, and then 3-tell them what you’ve told them…redundancy by design.

Create a pattern of content for “user friendliness.”

Flow Control…the proper use of linear media such as PowerPoint, or video, or film, or slide strips, etc. – is when it appropriately guides the flow of content. It’s the “power of the next slide” hopefully being used appropriately and not hindering a more fluid/dynamic/open approach to sequence when THAT approach is more appropriate.

The designer/developer uses this to ensure that some things are covered and in a particular order…and by their exclusion suggests that anything not covered isn’t relevant. Which may or may not be true. Unless there is a “slide” asking for additional points, questions, applications, exceptions, etc. Which might be needed…to force a little interactivity into the session.

Ensuring a learning sequence is not always important – but sometimes is critical.

Learning the enabling safety features of a firearm before use on the firing range in the Basic Law Enforcement program at your local junior colleges might be a good way to go. Covering each and every one of them in a logical sequence (or even in an arbitrary sequence) and to the depth of the “standard” text/graphics on each slide might also be a good idea.

Forcing content “flow control” via sequenced content (on slides or successive flip chart pages)might help in getting key prerequisites, the enabling K/Ss, presented “just in time” prior to their use in the next Instructional Activity.

To help the Facilitator to “not forget” an important set of content. To help manage the expectations of both the learners/Performers and the Facilitator. Harder to skip/gloss over some set of key points, or a Q&A session…when it comes across as the next slide in the deck – that is matched in the Participant Guide materials.

As a designer/developer I like to occasionally remind/force the facilitator to formally ask for questions at key points in the learning progression. For example- I force a standard “Review/Preview” at the transition points between Lessons within an Event. If it’s Self-Paced readings or e-learning I do the same by asking the reader/viewers to D-I-Y (do-it-yourself).

Create Flow Control to insure better “instructional effectiveness.”

OK -enough of that – on – when

…How about how…such as in the use of color, font sizes, graphics and strict standards or wild/anything-goes no-standards???

Like many things…this is where the art of this comes to play inside the science. The when is more science-based. The how is more artistic-based. Art is trickier, more subjective. Art, good art, elicits an emotion…love, hate, glad, mad, sad, etc. Great art creates strong and/or multiple reactions…or…it just doesn’t work. Good training may not be trying to create emotions all of the time. But maybe some of the time. As always, it depends.

Color, font sizes, graphics – yes, use them. Mix them up a bit…but not with such variation/wildness that you “drive the viewer to distraction.”

Unless by design.

Sometimes you ARE trying to create some “visceral dissonance.” That’s what makes it trickier. And subjective. To each his/her own. As appropriate to the situation, the audience, the learning goals, the performance competence goals.

Use white space as carefully as text and graphics and color. Use discernible patterns. Put your learner/Performer hat on and see your work from their perspective as a consumer…not from your perspective as the producer.

Having seen plenty of great and poor PowerPoint presentations, they seemed eerily similar to the great and poor pre-PowerPoint presentations of the old days. For me, it’s more about the relevancy of the message than the WOW of some slick media. Which PowerPoint media can be.

But put them both together when the “cost-of-non-conformance” (CONC) for not meeting the terminal objectives deem it deserving.

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