This slide is a little busy, but ...

Today I sat through about 15 presentations, and in the x 100th of them, the powerpoint failed. Just stopped working. It was a disaster for everyone concerned, not least of the concerned being the master’s student whose grade depended on getting the software working again[1]. As the crash came down, I realized that actually Powerpoint is a quite awesome piece of software, and we’d all be stuffed without it.

Bear with me here.

This young man’s presentation had a diagram on every slide, and the diagrams were essential, and consisted of mitochondrial thingies with strange boxes and structures in them, and usually also a flow chart of some kind to describe the process being used to break into or out of the mitochondriality of the thingamy. Every couple of slides was a table, or a graph. Then some chemical structures, maybe a picture of a bug, and then back to some of those fiendish flowcharts and another mitochonria with a box up its arse[2].

Watching him desperately trying to get his slides working again I realized that if he had to present this material to us in any other way, his 15 minute presentation would have been drawn out to about an hour as he drew painstaking diagrams and structures on – shudder! – a blackboard. Or worse still, one of those hideous transparency thingies that ate my soul back in 3rd year. Before the internet (do you remember those times? No, neither do I. Why would you?) Perhaps he’d have had to bring a couple of old-fashioned 3-D models of chemical structures. So we’d have got through only a third as many presentations, at a great cost in blood and treasure, and would be watching Masters presentations until Friday afternoon. And I’ll bet you a groat that most of those presentations would still have been bad, although by Thursday afternoon my brain would be mush and quality control would be out the window.

Actually, the presentations were largely of very high quality, and almost all of their failings were in content rather than presentation – the presentation was of universally high quality. And the bad presentations failed for largely one reason: the presenter was reading the same words that were written on the screen. That is, the worst of the presentations were bad because they were like a speech. Had those presenters followed basic principles of powerpoint – short bullet points, diagrams and graphs that you hang a speech on – they’d have been improved. The main reason that powerpoint fails us is that we use it as a speech-making prop rather than a presentation tool. Sure, there is probably still the odd weirdo out there who uses animated gifs, and occasionally you see someone try to present a sophisticated jobby, with transitions and the like – these usually fail and make the presenter look like a wanker. But if you use powerpoint for its main benefits, you get a fine addition to your presentations. Bullet points and charts give you something to hang your words on, and by hanging your words on the points you make the points more interesting, and give your audience a way to process information at a greater density and with more focus than you would get if you were just reading it.

So, I think the standard view of powerpoint – that it dumbs down presentations and makes them shallow – is flat out wrong. There’s a heavy dose of condescension and, I would say, luddism, in this view. Embrace your slide-y overlords!

fn1: A word of advice to all masters students out there: don’t use the timer on slides. You will go faster or slower than your timer allows you. In either case it looks bad, and then it gets annoying, and if you make your reviewers dizzy flicking backwards and forwards on the slides, it’s probably not going to help you

fn2: My poor description of this presentation is not an indictment of Powerpoint, but a sign that I am not a biologist. I was there to support students from my department, who most certainly would not touch a mitochondria no matter how sweetly it talked to them. They’re all about the epidemiology!