StATS: Bluejacket Toastmasters speech (July 15, 2004)

This is the text of a talk I gave to Bluejacket Toastmasters on July 15, 2004.

Introduction

The May Issue of Toastmasters Magazine had several articles about electronic presentations, which in 95% of the cases means PowerPoint presentations. One author (Eric Spellmann) summarizes the viewpoint that I've come to despise. He writes:

PowerPoint also can liven up an otherwise boring topic. In addition to using vibrant text and background colors, presenters can choose from a wide variety of clip art and photos. And when using PowerPoint's animation and sound options, these graphics can shake, rattle and roll.

The <BLINK> tag

All of this reminds me of the early years of the World Wide Web. There were some truly atrocious looking web sites out there that relied on a bunch of cheap electronic gimmicks. And the worst gimmick of all was the BLINK tag.

When you are writing a page for the web, you surround text with tags that will tell the text how to display itself. Text surrounded by the BOLD tags will display itself in bold and text surrounded by the ITALIC tags will display itself in italics.

If you surround some text with the BLINK tag, it will flash on and off and on and off and on and off forever. The BLINK tag would invariably draw the eye to the blinking text, so some web pages would use it for phrases like BUY NOW ... BUY NOW ... BUY NOW ... BUY NOW.

Blinking text is interesting for about two seconds, but after that it become annoying. People quickly came to recognize that web sites using the BLINK tag were cheap and amateurish.

Design experts actually did some scientific studies about the BLINK tag on web pages. What they found was that when people encountered a page with blinking text, they did one of two things. If they could, they immediately clicked on the BACK button to close the page. If they couldn't do this, they would cover up the blinking text with one hand and tried to read the rest of the text.

Why Powerpoint doesn't help

The problem with PowerPoint is that it is a box full of BLINK tags--cheap amateurish gimmicks.

Can Powerpoint salvage a boring talk? Not really.

If your topic is boring, then it won't become less boring by changing your text to a firecracker red, or adding soft clouds in the background, or placing a clip art image of a racer crossing the finish line, or having the new slides spin into place, or playing a cute melody at each slide transition.

What is the cure for a boring topic?

The best cure for a boring topic is to not talk about things that are boring. Part of this is believing in yourself and your topic. If you see your topic as boring, then the battle is lost before you have spoken your first word. Search for the aspect of your topic that will captivate and enthrall your audience, that will mesmerize and intrigue them.

Adding some PowerPoint gimmicks to a talk is no better than tossing a bunch of unrelated jokes into your talk.

PowerPoint will run a good talk into the ground

PowerPoint is worse than useless, though. PowerPoint can take a good talk and run it into the ground..

Peter Norvig, one of the computer geeks behind the Google search engine, imagined how awful it would be if Abraham Lincoln had to use PowerPoint for the Gettysburg address. Visualize a tall thin man with a short beard and a stove pipe hat. He's staring down at a laptop computer.

Do I press this button here? Function-F7? No, that's not right. Hmmm. Maybe I'll have to reboot. Hold on a minute.

Peter Norvig fed the full text of Lincoln's Gettysburg address into something called the PowerPoint AutoContent Wizard. What the AutoContent Wizard does, and you should be very frightened that computers do this, is that it digests the talks, throws out the unimportant words and spits out bullets on a series of Powerpoint slides. So, for example, the AutoContent Wizard took the phrase

dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal

and created a bullet

Can't you just feel PowerPoint sucking out all the passion from Lincoln's speech. In contrast, look at the full text of Lincoln's speech on your handout. The writing is just brilliant. The second sentence reads

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.

Any effort to put these words onto a PowerPoint slide would just cheapen those words.

What if you have to use PowerPoint?

I believe that PowerPoint never adds to the quality of a talk and will often detract from the quality. But what if your boss says that you have to use PowerPoint?

Do you have the option of telling your boss that he's an idiot?

No, I didn't think so.

If you have to use PowerPoint, use it to the minimum extent possible.

  1. Avoid clip art, animation, and any special effects.
  2. Write full sentences with both a subject and a verb.
  3. Use black letters on a white background.

This last point is very important. Black letters on a white background is by far the easiest combination to read and it works well under harsh environments, which is far easier to read than any other combination. Other color combinations may create a variety of different moods, but setting a mood is less important than making your slides readable.

Finally, use as few slides as you can and spend most of your time talking to your audience. The ideal PowerPoint presentation would be a single slide that lists the general outline of your talk.

Ten years ago, I used PowerPoint (or its precursor, the overhead transparency) for all my talks. Today I print off a web page and hand it out to the audience at the start of my talk. I have found this to be liberating, because I no longer fumble at the computer or the overhead projector. I no longer look back over my shoulder to make sure that the slide is displayed properly. I look at my audience instead, which is what you're supposed to do.

Summary

In summary, PowerPoint won't improve a bad talk, and they may detract from a good talk. Trying to improve a talk with PowerPoint is like trying to improve your weight loss program in the candy aisle of the supermarket.

This page was written by Steve Simon while working at Children's Mercy Hospital. Although I do not hold the copyright for this material, I am reproducing it here as a service, as it is no longer available on the Children's Mercy Hospital website. Need more information? I have a page with general help resources. You can also browse for pages similar to this one at Category: Presenting research data.