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Can Presentation Software Serve A Useful Purpose?

For years I have struggled with the value of presentation software like Microsoft’s PowerPoint, OpenOffice’s Impress or AppleWorks, generically called presentationware.  Most presentations I see use presentationware to display the outline or script for the presenter.  I am certainly guilty of doing the same.  The slides being displayed don’t add any value.  Worse, when the presenter starts reading or reciting what is on the slide it makes the whole experience painful.  Is there a value offered through the use of this software during a live presentation?

Presentation Zen Book CoverExploring this question, I just finished Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds, a gift from my sister (thank you Beth!), and I have a fresh outlook regarding the use of presentationware.  Instead of viewing its role as a visual sort of “Cliff’s Notes” or outline version of my words, Garr suggests that it should augment my oration.

The core issue revolves around the value of the presenter and his or her participation in the process.  If the slides contain a significant amount of what the speaker intends to say, what value does the speaker add?  It is clearly less value if he or she is reading the slides or adding a small amount of information beyond the written content.  Also, the presenter’s value is further reduced if the audience is distracted reading a lot of text from the slide.  The audience members are forced to split their attention between reading and listening.

A presentation full of text also limits the ability of the presenter to adjust the message to the audience.  The presenter has laid out the script for a program and that is what the participants will expect to hear.  Removing this detail from the slide grants the presenter flexibility and it forces the audience to listen.  The requirement for the attendees to listen is a key concept to effective use of presentationware.

Without the script sitting in front of them on the slides, people must pay attention to what is being said.  They cannot read ahead, convincing themselves that they understand what is about to be stated.  Rather, the slide gives a broad suggestion of what is being discussed and the speaker is required to actually supply the meaning.  The book makes the point very well, stating that the slides should not have much meaning to people without the presenter explaining them.

The book discussions the age-old question regarding the appropriate number of slides for a presentation.  I always use a lot of slides, going through more than one-per-minute in some cases.  Some people have cautioned me that you should stay on a slide for at least two minutes.  I’ve never understood this perceived requirement.

Garr suggests that there is no hard-and-fast rule for the correct number of slides used during a presentation.  It may be that sitting on a single slide for too long could lead to an impression of the presentation dragging.  I believe such a perception has more to do with the style of the presenter than slide count.  It would seem that the number of slides is really presenter and topic specific and cannot be expressed as a general rule.

The book also delves into the graphic design of the sides.  Samples from a variety of presentations are included to help the reader get a feel for options and effects.  Approaches for thinking about how to combine images and text are given as well.

I was amazed at the breadth of coverage in this relatively short book.  It is also very easy to read, written in a lighthearted style.  I read the book from cover to cover within a few hours and then re-read it while taking notes of key points I want to be sure I apply.

At the end of this post I’ve included a couple of images.  They are the “slide sorter” views from two presentations.  The first is indicative of the slides I have typically created.  The second is from a brief presentation I gave shortly after reading Presentation Zen.  Although I am not a graphical designer, I think you’ll see that the styles are very different.

I am looking forward to employing this new-found insight into the effective use of presentationware.  Hopefully those attending my presentations will appreciate the change as well.

Old Style Presentation Slides:

New Style Presentation Slides:

New Style Presentation Slide Samples


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