Polishing your PowerPoints

You’ve rebooted your syllabus, now it’s time to take a serious look at your PowerPoint/Keynote presentations. We all know that nothing is more deadly to an audience than a speaker who presents by reading from his/her text-covered slides. And yet, when it comes to preparing lecture slides for our students, we are sometimes hard pressed to come up with alternatives. For one, there is the idea that the slides are serving a double purpose – first there is the lecture, and second, the slides, packaged for distribution on a course website, present a review of the material covered. The Innovative Instructor is here to tell you that this is poor pedagogy and offer better practices.

Roadside billboard with message "your (brief) message here" displayed.For starters, when your slides are playing a dual role, neither objective is well-served. Create review sheets or outlines for your students as a component separate from your lecture slides. Rather than repeating the information you are giving in the lecture, use the opportunity to create a set of questions that your students should be able to answer after the lecture. This will help prepare them for exams by making them think about the material and identifying areas of weak understanding.

As for the in-class presentation, those slides with dozens of bullet points and incomprehensible charts and graphs need a makeover. An book by Nancy Duarte called Slide:ology – offers a quick read and great tips. [Nancy Duarte, Slide:ology,  O’Reilly Media, Inc., 2008] Duarte reports on research showing that listening and reading are conflicting cognitive processes, meaning that your audience can either read your slides or listen to you; they cannot do both at the same time. However, our brains can handle simultaneous listening to a speaker and seeing relevant visual material.

Duarte contends that if you have more than 75 words on a slide, it is serving as a document. Your students can’t even see the text when it is projected, so the information is lost. With around 50 words a slide acts as a teleprompter. The default method for the instructor is to turn his or her back to the audience and recite from the words on the slide while the students are reading along, usually faster than the speaker is speaking. The best presentations use minimal text on the slide. The slides act as visual aids, reinforcing your message and allowing the students to concentrate on what you are saying.

Ideally your students should be able to process the message on your slide within 3 seconds. Think of it as a billboard. As a driver, you only have a few seconds to read a billboard as you drive past, so the message must be compelling and to the point. The three second rule works because it puts the focus on what you, the instructor, are saying. Remember, your students can’t read and listen simultaneously. The ideal slide will be a short sentence or phrase summarizing the main point you are making, or an image that reinforces your message. Each slide should have only one point.

Data slides should also be rethought. Have you ever found yourself saying, “I know you can’t really see this, but….”? Stop right there. If the chart, graph, table, or diagram isn’t readable, don’t show it. The fact is that presentation slides are not a good medium for displaying complex data. If it is really important that your students examine your data details closely, then you should think about creating a handout and allowing for consideration of that information apart from your slide presentation. Otherwise, consider that the data slide should not be about the data display but about the meaning of the data. What is the point you want to make? Do you need a chart or graph to make that point? If the answer is yes, then simplify. Keep your data points to a minimum, eliminate chart clutter such as unnecessary labels and lines, and spread the information over several slides if you are making more than one point about the data.

Duarte provides lots of information on colors and fonts. The essential take-away is to keep it basic. Black text on a plain white background will work in any situation. San-serif fonts such as Arial or Verdana, are easiest to read. Keep the font size large (not a problem when you aren’t trying to cram so much text on each slide) and in no case should it be less than 24 points.

It doesn’t take much work to clean up your slides and become a power presenter. And your students will thank you.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Microsoft Clip Art edited by Macie Hall