Monday, February 9, 2015

Winter Week 2: Avoiding the Powerpoint Rabbit Hole

This week, Ted lead a very interesting workshop detailing some strategies for avoiding the powerpoint rabbit hole.  We loosely defined the 'rabbit hole' as the type of presentation or talk where the powerpoint is the star of the show, instead of the speaker.  Obviously, YOU want to be the center of attention in your own talk.  Ted's notes on how to achieve this below:

"PowerPoint can be a useful tool for presentations, but it’s not the only tool in the box.  In fact, it’s often not the best way to get your message across.  We all have resorted to a hasty PowerPoint when time crunches put us on the defensive for an upcoming presentation, but with a little imagination, you can do better. 

First, hone your public speaking skills.   The single best way to improve is with practice.  It doesn’t much matter what the subject is, just get yourself in front of audiences as much as you can.  Volunteer to speak at lab meetings, seminars, or classes.  You WILL get better.  Public speaking is the core of any good presentation – you can have the most sophisticated presentation out there, but if you don’t speak with precision, clarity, and confidence, no one will remember it. 

For a more structured approach to public speaking, join your local Toastmasters club.  Offering a series of prepared and impromptu speaking opportunities to build specific skills and general confidence, Toastmasters lets you focus on improving your speaking skills in a supportive environment. 

I got a lot of good advice before my qualifying exam, but the one I remember most applies to all presentations:  when you are in front of an audience, YOU are in charge.  It’s your presentation, and you can use whatever approaches you feel will be most effective.  Think about the audience’s expectations, and what they want to get out of the presentation.  But, recognize the audience will give you tremendous latitude in how you communicate your material.  Don’t be afraid to do something unexpected or new.   

Before we launch into alternatives to PowerPoint, let’s first be clear:  PowerPoint is not evil, and can be useful in many situations.  For graphs, images, movies, or audio files, PowerPoint provides a well-established container for your next presentation.  Rather than linking to external files (or worse, the internet), embed the files in the presentation.  If possible, test your presentation with the actual equipment (computer and projector) you will be using.  If you need to extract video or audio from YouTube, online services like http://peggo.co can be useful, but be sure not to violate anyone’s copyright. 

Instead of putting text or ideas onto PowerPoint slides, consider using handouts instead.  Your audience can read at its own pace, take notes, and refer to your entire presentation at ease.  The most common way to use a handout is to present an agenda.  But why not give more information?  Include your main points, and supporting text.  You can include figures and images as well, but if you really need to draw attention to detail, also put these graphics up on the screen. 

Consider creating information as you go.  Sure, you can have new text “fly in” using PowerPoint, but writing that same information on a chalkboard or flip chart drives home the importance of the text – if you stopped your entire presentation to write those words down, they audience will understand they are important.  This approach also allows you to respond to the audience; if you ask for three possible explanations for the data you just showed, it’s very unlikely the audience will list them in the order you did on your next slide.  Writing them down involves the audience. 

While most alternatives to PowerPoint are simply other tools to generate sequential slides, Prezi (Prezi.com) is a little different.  Give it a try, it’s free.  Rather than having to add each piece of information to a slide, you put all your data (or words, graphs, movies, charts, what have you) on a big workspace.  Then, you specify the order to move between each of these pieces of information.  Prezi destroys the linear requirement of PowerPoint.  Therefore, it’s quite good for presentations that are non-linear, or return to a recurring image or hypothesis.  But, the “one big sheet” overview can be a useful tool to orient your audience to the general outline of your talk.  While it’s tempting to build suspense with PowerPoint, building up to that big finale, many in your audience will be more interested if you give them an overview first, something Prezi does almost automatically. 

Finally, study the techniques of successful presenters.  A great link is this one, which includes a summary chart of various techniques: https://www.powtoon.com/presentation/5-best-presentations/  Watch presentations, from Richard Feynman to Steve Jobs.  Effective presentations are an art, and to be a master you will need to move beyond PowerPoint and practice various techniques to find what works best for you in various situations. "


-- Ted Hullar

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