I attended a major conference recently where every speaker accompanied their presentation with a highly detailed PowerPoint presentation. Sitting at the back of the hall, I struggled to read the text on the screen - multiple bullet points, detailed flow charts and organograms clicked past uncomprehended.
Each speaker dutifully acknowledged the complexity of their slides, and reassured us that their PowerPoint files would be available via the conference website. This raised the immediate question, why were they using PowerPoint rather than simply reading a paper and circulating the text? To compound this baffling approach, at the opening of the event the opening speaker and the audience were presented with the 'blue screen of death'. The technology failed, and the opening presentation was delayed for several minutes while the technicians sorted it out.
High tech hitches
This reminded me of an event several years ago, when I was working as a training manager in Higher Education. I was phoned 15 minutes before a major launch event was due to begin. There was a technical hitch, and my two panicked speakers were asking if their presentation could be printed as OHP slides - overhead projectors were still a standard feature in teaching rooms. I dutifully took the relevant file on a USB stick down to the basement where a printer capable of handling acetates lurked. To my horror, the presentation contained no fewer than 75 slides. Nonetheless, 25 minutes later I delivered a box of slides to the lecture hall to find that the technical hitch had been resolved. I drew small comfort from knowing that should technology fail my speakers again, they would have a low-tech back-up.
Low tech solutions
The moral of this story is not, however, a suggestion that we should rely on a belt-and-braces approach. Instead, I would question anyone's reliance on PowerPoint or its equivalents as a crutch. Whatever your audience, whether it is a small panel in a recruitment interview, a seminar room of restless undergraduates, or a conference hall filled with international delegates, consider whether you want to be judged on your skills (good or otherwise) in manipulating data on a screen, or on the quality of your ideas. Do your slides support and supplement your spoken words, do they distract and confuse, or do they simply compensate for the lack of content in what you have to say?
In some organisations house style dictates the maximum number of slides (and bullet points per slide) in any presentation - no more than 10 slides for an hour's lecture and no more than five points per slide. Recently I have been experimenting with a more extreme approach. For a half day workshop I have been using no more than 10 slides with minimal text accompanied by an interesting image that illustrates my theme for each 20 minute section. My yardstick is would I be able to run this event in a power cut? I want my audience to remember what I say, not what they see on the screen behind me.
[*with my apologies for Mr W Shakespeare].
Donald Lickley is a consultant at Sue Hill Recruitment. He has more than 20 years' experience in the information world. He has a strong background in the management and delivery of HR support & advice, and staff development and training gained within Higher Education, but also frontline experience of managing information and library services in a variety of sectors.
Image courtesy of mandyxclear via Flickr.