academia, conferences, dissemination, Higher Education

What’s the point of Powerpoint? (episode 3 of the Fabulous Four)

Third in a series of posts, all drawn from my own – often suffered – experience of the academic world, about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research and dissemination (in random order). The last post, on REF 2021, is available here.

Episode 3 (dissemination)

What’s the point of Powerpoint?

As the academic year draws to an end, conference-goers get on their way. Powerpoint (PPT) has, by now, become an almost indispensable visual aid at conferences and in the classroom, certainly in the UK. It is gaining ever more momentum, even if some are highly critical of it. But, as one person commented in a recent Twitter debate on the topic, “PPT snobbery is just bullshit for people who like to pretend they’re doing a Ted Talk.”

PPT is particularly frowned upon in Italy, I have found, perhaps because of a certain defiance of technological forms of communication? Or maybe the rhetorical tradition – in its original, oral form – is more rooted in the Italian academic context? That said, not all Italians master the art of rhetorical speaking. I vividly recall a conference of the Society for Italian Studies, where an Italian bloke totally missed the mark in terms of presenting. I don’t recall the topic of his talk (which shows just how terrible his presentation skills were), but I do remember how tedious, almost tormenting, it was to sit through his presentation. Yes, “sitting through” is the right description, and I’m not just talking about the audience! In fact, the speaker basically sat behind a table, sliding down the chair as if he was watching telly on a lazy Friday night, his shoulders pending to one side as the relative arm rested on the table edge, his hand barely holding up the paper while the other hand hided in his pocket. He read the whole paper without bothering to look into the room, obviously going way too fast. I can’t recall how good his English was, but if you add bad pronunciation to it, well, you have a worst case scenario.

Apart from being truly indispensable in certain disciplines, such as art history or film studies, PPT can be a really good visual aid, both for the not-so-confident/skilled public speaker and for the audience. Provided it is considered just that: an AID.

In fact, a lot of people make an excessive or bad use of PPT, which results in equally ineffective presentations. This includes established scholars. I once attended a keynote lecture where the speaker seemed to have copied and pasted his talk, or large part of it, into a PPT presentation: his slides were packed with text, text and still more text, one slide after another…impossible to read while also trying to listen.

So, if you’re guilty of the above or any other misuse of PPT (e.g., flashing colours, flickering lights), or if you’re one of those people who speeds through their slides as if they’re worried they’ll miss their flight, here’s five tips on how to deliver a decent, and effective, PPT presentation:

  1. Don’t stand in front of the slides, but on the side: if you’re right-handed stand left and vice versa.
  2. Don’t overcrowd. Forty words or so is enough for one slide.
  3. Don’t prepare too many slides: my advice is 10 to 12 slides for a 20-minute talk.
  4. Choose your background wisely: MS offers a lot of available PPT templates, but they’re not always appropriate. See if your university has its own PPT template – they always look smart! Also avoid dark backgrounds: dark writing on a light background works best.
  5. Limit, or indeed avoid, excessive clip art and animation features. If you do need to make multiple data appear within the same slide, at different moments, practice this in advance, marking the points in which the data is to appear.

By way of example, have a look at one of my own presentations, on 1968 and the Italian right (ASMI annual conference 2008): Hajek PPT 1968. Note how I’ve added sources when using images from Internet, well except for the iconic photo of the French “Marianne” (by Jean-Pierre Rey). It must have skipped my attention! Also, looking at it now, I would have added a reference – on the first slide – to the name of the association organising the conference, and a final slide containing email address and any social media.

To conclude, only use PPT if it has sense or if you think it will help you. But it’s not a must. Different things work for different people: some are great public speakers, others less. The point I want to make is that PPT can contribute to inclusivity by giving inexperienced or nervous speakers confidence, or simply a visual aid to help them deliver a clear and structured presentation. That also goes for the audience, especially people those who aren’t English native speakers, as it helps them follow the narrative and catch up in case they might miss a word.

In sum, if done correctly Powerpoint is really helpful, and audiences will thank you. I certainly would.

Note: other than building on my own conference experience, for some of the tips described above I have drawn inspiration from the “Presenting to an Academic Audience” course led by Dr Steve Hutchinson, from Hutchinson Training & Development Ltd. 

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