If the electronic version of a typewriter is the word processor, of ledgers the spreadsheet, and of a card file the database, presentation software is the electronic incarnation of the slide show or of the flip chart so famously demonstrated by Ross Perot in 1992 or (more recently) by Al Gore in the movie “An Inconvenient Truth.” Designed to present a series of screens or “slides” as a visual aid, presentation software can be used from everything from church hymnal to making movies. In skillful hands it can create things of beauty but in most cases it is an express train to banality.
The theory behind presentation software is that visual aids help comprehension of spoken material and that having a single legible representation helps an audience to stay focussed and together. At the opera or in church, presentation software can display song lyrics or translation through super-titles. In a lecture, clear slides can free the speaker from the chalk or whiteboard in favor of a more methodical and consistent outline. A presentation can be a convenient way to carry a variety of portable graphics, but in practice most presentation software makes presentations seem twice as tedious and banal than they already are by dividing the audience’s attention between multiple media and repeatedly over-stating the obvious. Those who decide to use presentation software, then, are under a grave moral obligation to use it as intelligently and ethically as possible.
Slides, Bullets and Drumbeats
By organizing data into a series of sequential slides, presentation software by its nature creates a mechanistic, lock-step narrative, unswerving in its avoidance of digression and dictatorial in its general hostility to questions. Frequently used by speakers as a crutch to avoid thinking or engaging with the audience, the perfect example of this is the technique called a “bullet build.” The bullet-build is a list of five or so items, pre-arranged to appear in sequence one at a time, perhaps with an animation as if pre-ordained. If the bullet build is titled “meals served” and the title fills the upper quarter of the slide, it is guaranteed that three meals will be presented in order, without room for snacks or discussions of such pesky issues as junk food or blood sugar. Thus spake Zarathustra. A series of such slides, inexorably moving forward, has a mechanistic drumbeat drone to it and generally discourages critical thinking, especially in the hands of a nervous, inexperienced or mechanistic speaker. Like the workday for proles in Fritz Lang’s 1927 movie Metropolis, this tap-tapping rhythm makes the phrase “droning PowerPoint presentation” almost a triple redundancy.
What then are the aesthetic and ethical rules for using presentation software? How can one use it so that it is not authoritarian, dicatatorial and didactic? Perhaps one cannot.
What Are You Doing?
People use presentation software for a variety of things, and your intent will determine if and how you use it. The best use of presentation software is perhaps in the hands of a skilled lecturer who uses it to quickly provide key ideas and references (such as citations for texts or studies) without interrupting the general narrative. Medical conferences frequently feature this sort of presentation: usually no more than a dozen or so slides, the first of which introduces the speaker, half of which cite other studies and half of which provide key illustrations which are referred to throughout the lecture and can be used in multiple ways or referred to during questions. Slides such as this are easy to find and serve an immediate need that does NOT distract from the main speaker. “Here we see a radiograph where a dark spot may indicate an abnormality.”
A second use of presentation software is similar and may take place at a public briefing, including such things as contact numbers for city offices, a proposed timeline for a project and perhaps a few maps or photographs of a project area.
A third use of presentation software is at an event such as a wedding, reunion or funeral, where a series of related photos appear and disappear on the screen, perhaps to musical accompaniment. This is where presentation software starts to merge into opera or multi-media moviemaking. The point is not to provide an aid to a live speaker or a discussion but to provide a self-running presentation that may be accompanied by music or narration. Depending on the length and complexity of such a presentation, sometimes it is more logical to use a tool other than Keynote or Power Point. On the Macintosh two of the more common choices are iPhoto or iMovie, which allow one to lay down a series of slides with interesting transitional effects more quickly or to assemble slides and then record an underlying narrative, similar to a Ken Burns documentary.
The worst use presentation software is to present propaganda and canned narrative as a fait accompli. In this case the software is used to dictate a predetermined order with only the vaguest pretense of conversation or feedback. The viewer is not encouraged to ask any questions that will divert from the set script, nor are they allowed to muse on the material themselves, as they might with an artistic photo collage at a wedding or funeral. Such presentations are essentially a force-feeding of canned information, predominantly used by cookie-cutter trainers and sales people, who discourage substantive questions and dicussion. It is these sorts of presentation which lead thinkers such as Edward Tufte to denounce Power Point as essentially authoritarian and hostile to thought.
Rules of Thumb
In most cases I am of the personal opinion that the fewer slides there are in a presentation, the more honest and useful it is, provided that the slides are carefully chosen to be used in a variety of ways. Sometimes there will need to be a quick series of slides to establish background terms or timelines, but the main body of a presentation can almost always be presented in half a dozen slides, chosen for their ability to encourage questions, understanding and an attention to detail.
Another excellent guideline is to limit the amount of information per slide. The standard presentation slide is a title with a single picture or graphic and text, or perhaps a series of bullet points. Most slides should contain no more than twenty words or no more than four or five bullet points. More data than this tends to become a sea of confusion, as do more than one or two pictures at a time. Two or three pictures allow comparison. Three or more pictures are merely a collage, with little opportunity to examine them. Small pictures are too muddy to be useful and (like too many words) just become noise. Much as writing can be seen as God’s way of showing you how muddled your thinking is, presentation software can show you how rambling your thoughts. Most non-academic presentations should be easily summarized on a single sheet of paper, and if your presentation will not so fit, it is good to consider why that is the case.
Almost every presentation software package allows you to select a theme or style for your slides beforehand, and then to add a particular type of slide: a title slide, a single graphic, a graphic with caption or a bulleted list. If you use this feature it will make your slides much more consistent, and allow you to re-use your material more efficiently. Building slides separately by scratch will usually make your presentation more disjointed, so use master slides and styles much as you would styles in a word processing document.
Many presentation programs will allow you to create a separate page of “speaker’s notes” to accompany each slide, and many people use this space to write out everything they will say, word for word. If you need such a crutch, use it, but it is usually smarter to use this space to cite your sources and your references, not duplicating information that is on the main slide but providing details for the question and answer session, or to refer to during the presentation itself. If a picture comes from a web site, monograph or book, speaker’s notes are an excellent place to record this fact, so that the same material can be verified or re-used later. For statistics and citations, this is especially important.
Exporting and Saving
Another thing which many presentation software packages allow you to do is to export or save your presentation so that they can be distributed as physical handouts, HTML pages or even exported to the web or DVD as movies. If you consider how your audience may wish to use your presentation, exporting it or uploading it to a web page beforehand provides a nice thing to put on your last slide. If you have a camera or iPod which can be hooked up to a large-screen television or projector, frequently a presentation can be exported as a series of JPG photographs, making the transition full circle from when presentations were first created from cameras and shown as slides.