Death by PowerPoint used to be a joke, a phrase that was bandied around the conference room.  It refers (in case you couldn’t guess) to the over relliance upon PowerPoint slides at conferences.  By every single delegate.  For every single presentation, seminar or talk no matter how short or long. 

Or at least this was where I first encountered the term.  Whilst I’ve been to many conferences and seminars where the phrase has drifted back into my head, usually around 3pm as an especially ungifted speaker is droning on about something that I really want to be paying closer attention to but all I can see are slides flashing up blipvert stylee one after another on the screen.  

I’ll always especially remember a conference session in Southampton back in 2006 in this regard.  It wasn’t a bad conference by any stretch of the imagination, indeed there was much useful information I took away from it.  But the one over riding impression I had was of PowerPoint presentation followed by PowerPoint presentation for every single talk.  And with the conference format being lots of 10 minute sessions that was an awful lot of slides over 2.5 days.  Even the 5 minute presentations from suppliers comprised a dozen or more slides on the glimmering screen.

Enough already!

When I was first using PP, there was a rule of thumb that said 2 minutes per slide.  I speak fast, so this wasn’t a standard I could hold myself to for some time.  I tended to think that everyone else thought as fast as I do, but gradually as I’ve got more experienced I’ve slowed down the flashy slides.  Indeed from time to time I’ve done the seemingly impossible of throwing away the slides and just talking to people. 

At the aforementioned conference I was the last speaker, and truth to be told wasn’t quite sure what the audience had wanted to hear (this is in my open access advocate days).  They weren’t repository people, and despite talking to many of them between sessions I’d not really gotten a handle on where they were coming from with respect to my topic.  As a result I’d not written any slides before the conference, and was planning on drafting something during it.  I kept looking at my laptop thinking “I really should write some slides but…”. 

Then it hit me; I’d just talk about the topic from my own knowledge.  Sure it might not look or sound as slick, but it left me able to adapt it right up to the last minute – and I’m a pretty loquacious speaker so in the end it was possible to just talk to the audience without the PP to guide me.  It went down well, and certainly was a personal watershed in terms of trying to ween myself off PP.

There’s a tendancy that everything in academia, certainly in a library context, needs slides to go with it.  Something to guide the session, and in part a distraction for the students to look at – rather than staring at the presenter.  I’m sadly as guilty as the next person in using them, though increasingly I keep thinking about ditching them; and do for some sessions.  The problem is the students seem keyed to expect them as an attention focus, I’ve even been asked for copies of my slides when there are none; just scribbled speakers notes.  When I don’t bother using them it gives me a slightly uneasy feeling – and you can see in the students’ eyes a look of confusion.  Too much spoon feeding maybes?

On the other side of the argument, slides do help to structure a session and provide visual cues for what you need to talk about, so they do have a use.  Provided the speaker doesn’t just read the words that are on the screen.  But that’s another tale all together.


One thought on “Pointless

  1. I find the temptation to read the words on the slide irresistible (in exactly the same way I find reading cereal packets, buses, subtitles, well, reading any text actually, irresistible), so for me, the only way out is not to put the words on the slide.
    I like Guy Kawasaki’s 10:20:30 guideline:

    “I can read faster than this bozo can talk…”


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