Head for the Edge, March 1999
I have been to my share of conferences this year and have sat through my share of sessions and workshops. Increasingly presenters, both professional and from the field, are coming armed with computerized slide shows. And I have seen the good, the bad, and the truly ugly uses of these things. Hey, I’ve MADE good, bad and ugly computerized presentations myself!
Now when I was a little boy growing up on the prairie, a big part of learning to shoot a gun was learning how to use it safely. I learned how to never point it at real people, how to carry it unloaded in the gun rack of the pickup, and how to hand the gun to someone else without either of you getting shot. Little things like that. Unfortunately, most computer technology comes only with how-to instructions, rarely with how-to-do-it-safely instructions. Since slideshows are usually public and noticeable, I am offering some safety tips for both you as a presenter and for you as a teacher to share with your students and staff:
1. Have something to say.
Pretty pictures and lots of technology will never make up for the lack of interesting ideas and useable information. You can put all the pretty clothes on your dog you want, but he’s still a dog.
2. Organize it
My English taught me that in order to get a message across in a talk you had to tell the audience what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you just told them. Good presenters use the outliner to put their talks together logically and then use graphics, colors, or other on-screen guides to help the audience stay on track. Gary Hartzell is a master at this. Go see one of his fine presentations if you get the chance.
3. Don’t let the slides be the show.
The slide show should always be the second banana in any presentation. You, the human one, need to be the focus of the audience’s attention. That means things like eye contact, enthusiasm, gestures, vocal variety, practice, and other basics of good public speaking are still as important as ever. Put the screen to the side of the room so you stay in the center. Use a remote so you can get closer to your audience. And PLEASE don’t turn around to read the slides off the screen. Think about it: would you rather the world was looking at your face or your backside?
4. Use a good projector.
Poor projectors, especially LCD panels, require a room to be very dark. Dark rooms induce sleep. Enough said.
5. Use good slide formatting techniques.
Poor overhead transparency techniques have been ported very nicely over to computerized slide shows. Here are some very basic rules of thumb about slide formatting:
- Never have more than five lines of text on a slide with more than 5 words in each line. Less is more.
- Always have font point sizes of at 18 point for text and headlines of at least 36 point. Bigger is better.
- Cute fonts are hard to read. Plain fonts are easy to read.
- Use high contrast colors and simple backgrounds. Make the message jump out.
6. Don’t go overboard on special effects.
Like any kid with a new toy, I had to try out all the bells and whistles that came with my presentation software: sound effects, music, animations, cute graphics, and spiffy transitions. And, boy, did I get comments about my presentations! The problem was that the comments were not about my topic, they were about the special effects. Attention-getters when used sparingly really do get people’s attention. But don’t over do it. (My favorite comment of all time: “Watching you set up all the equipment was the best part of your presentation.” It’s hard not to get a big head.)
7. Use graphics for a purpose.
We forget that many, many adults as well as children are primarily visual learners. And for all of us, a good graphic image can communicate a concept with more impact than words alone. Most presentations programs can turn numbers into graphs and can import scanned examples of student work. Digital cameras allow us to quickly and easily show students and teachers in action. Johnson’s First Law of Presentations: Show your audience pictures of happy, productive children and they will believe anything you tell them.
Spelling errors in 48-point type projected 3 feet tall are lots more embarrassing than spelling errors in 10-point type on a page. And please remember that spelling checkers don’t catch everything. There is an apocrypha story of a superintendent here in Minnesota who welcomed back students and staff with a large banner that read, “WELCOME BACK TO LEFT OVERSHOE PUBIC SCHOOLS.”
Most of us get nervous enough having to talk in front of a bunch of grown-ups. Add to that situation the often-unpredictable nature of technology, and you have recipe for big-time stress. There are three things you can do to minimize the terror. First use your own equipment. Always bring your own computer and your own projector with you. Second, practice setting up the computer and projector as much as you practice giving your talk. Futzing with the equipment distracts from your message. And finally,
10. Have a back-up plan
Make sure there is a way you can still give your talk when (and I do mean when, not if) the equipment doesn’t work. Handouts with thumbnail views of each slide are a good back-up. So are old-fashioned transparencies that can be flopped on a standard overhead projector. My ultimate back-up plan is simply to cancel the talk, walk swiftly away, and find a new profession.
Please share these safety tips with both your teachers and your students. Watching someone shoot themselves in the foot with technology is never pleasant. I’m ready now for someone to suggest rules for the safe use of databases, desktop published documents, hypermedia stacks, webpages, and spreadsheets. Volunteers?
More detailed advice on creating and delivering effective slides and presentations can be found in:
- Kushner, Malcolm. Successful Presentations for Dummies. IDG Books, 1996.
- Lowe, Doug PowerPoint ‘97 for Windows for Dummies, IDG Books, 1996.
- Presenters University <http://www.presentersuniversity.com/>
- Williams, Robin. The Non-Designers Design Book. Peachpit Press, 1994.