Pain on the Plains | The aerial view PowerPoint presentation

PowerPoint Presentation Hell

‘My worst experience of a presentation was given by a colleague on his PhD research,’ recalls Sean, an academic. ‘He had about 50 PowerPoint slides all of which consisted of black text on a clear background and he proceeded to talk through these in a monotone until I had to clench my teeth so as not to shout out: We can read!’

‘There were about twenty people at the start of the presentation but only five at the end.  The others took advantage of the fact that he frequently turned his back on the audience to slip away.’

We have all seen this. You know you’re in trouble when you catch a glimpse of the ‘Slide Sorter’ at the start and the presentation looks like an aerial view of the American Great Plains: lots of dull-coloured rectangles, each intricately lined. Not only does it resemble ploughed prairie visually, it is about as interesting.

Why do people put text on screen and then read it out? If you look for a precedent in popular culture you won’t find one. The only time text is used in this way is with subtitles for films. This is only done when the audience doesn’t speak the language of the film – obviously – and made as unobtrusive as possible so as not to impinge on the interesting pictures the audience actually does want to view.

Cognitive Load

If you search the psychology and educational literature, you again won’t find evidence that on-screen text aids verbal delivery. In fact, in the field of Cognitive Load Theory, you’ll find many studies that say the exact opposite: that text is distracting, not enriching, and certainly not appealing. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a cognitive psychologist to point this out. Try reading a book and holding a conversation at the same time; it can’t be done.

The main reason people put text on screen is to remind them what to say. But this is a circular argument. The more text you put on screen, the more you need to read from that screen to remind you what text you put on that screen in the first place. If you get me.

The most extreme example of this, that I’ve encountered, was a philosophy PhD student who, at conferences, favoured reading his paper out, word for word. This is actually the norm in many of the humanities disciplines. He told me that his argument was so intricate and required such careful structuring and precise explanation that he had to write it down in a very ordered way or he would lose his train of thought and it wouldn’t make sense. The obvious counter-argument to this is that if he needed such a precisely crafted script to allow him, the expert, to follow his own argument, what chance had an audience of novices got of following it?

Presenters though can be very self-absorbed – due, understandably, to nerves – and worry far more about what they say than about what the audience hears. Which is the other interesting point about Sean’s story. The presenter was so consumed with ‘getting through’ his 50 slides that he didn’t seem to notice – or care – that his audience, one by one, were departing. And if you read from your own slides, your audience may not be so bold as to stand up and leave, but in their heads they will do so. You can be sure of that.

Text on PowerPoint Slides

There are other reasons for presenters putting text on slides. They plan their presentations on PowerPoint and so end up writing their thoughts into their slides as text. Also, they use slides as takeaway notes – ‘I’ll email you the PowerPoint’ – a problem we will address in later posts. And the other reason people put text on the screen is that they see other people doing it, which, as hopefully this blog will show, is the worst reason of all.

Photo image: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / StrangerView

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