Using PowerPoint Properly

Yes, it can be done

Every so often, an article appears in an education magazine or journal condemning PowerPoint presentations and advocating the banning of slideshow type presentations in the classroom. I do not agree with this viewpoint, and so I going to share with you my experience of using PowerPoint, with a few tips on how to make to more it effective. Remember though, that a good PowerPoint presentation won’t make a boring, or unimaginative lesson magically better. PowerPoint is just a tool, and can be used for the greater good. Used badly, it can also ruin an otherwise good lesson.

My experiences are based on using it routinely in an academic environment teaching Introductory Physics to university students. You should consider carefully who your audience are, before writing your own presentation. In my case, the objectives are to write a reasonably comprehensive set of notes for the students, which can be used in conjunction with lecture video, a textbook, and online material to provide an overview of the subject. I have to keep the attention for 75–80 minutes, which is a considerable length of time. Generally, my students have commented favourably on the notes.

Font

I like a san-serif font, as I find it more relaxing to read. Mostly, I use Calibri, which is compact and relatively easy on the eye. I have no strong opinions on Comic Sans, despite the current tendency to look down on its use. If you don’t think your audience will appreciate it, don’t use it. Printed text tends to use serif-fonts, and I like to differentiate my presentations from the printed word. Don’t mix serif and san-serif fonts, it does not look attractive. Use a large font. I normally use 32-point font for main text, and 28 point for subtext, occasionally dipping down to 24-point font.

Background

I work in large lecture theatres, with large screens. I find that a pure white background is a little too bright, particularly if you look at the screen for any length of time. My classes last 75 to 80 minutes, so I want something a little more restful on the eye. I’ve settled on a light blue colour as my default background.

I did experiment with a pale green colour once, but found that it tended to wash out to a grey on some projection systems. Don’t assume that the colour you see on your monitor or screen is necessarily the one what will appear on the screen when you make the presentation! Notice that it a plain background. If you use a dark background, then use white or very light text colours to give a good contrast.

No fancy watermarks, patterns or shading. These tend to distract the audience. I also have the slide number in a very subdued colour in the bottom -right corner. If you work in a corporate environment, you might have to put a company logo or name on every slide. If you can, try to make these as subdued as possible to avoid the wandering eye being drawn to them. You want the attention of the viewer firmly on the content of the slide, not surrounding fripperies. Under no circumstances have animations going on in the background. This is guaranteed to distract the viewer.

Colour Choices

Be aware that a sizeable fraction of the population may be colour-blind to some degree or another. This means that some of the audience may not be able to distinguish between some colours. Red-green colour-blindness is the most common form, so having a colour palette with red and green in it should be avoided. There are several useful websites which can run your slides through various filters to show you how the colours look to people with various forms of colour-blindness. My light blue background, with dark blue and dark red emphasis colours seems to work reasonably well when viewed through the various filters.

Information

A picture is worth a thousand words. If you can replace text with a picture, diagram or other graphic, you should do so. Do not try to pack too much information on one slide — this is one reason to choose a large font size, it cuts that right out!

Do not reproduce large chunks of text on the screen. and most importantly, do not read out large chunks of text during your presentation. Use your slides as visual cues.

Microsoft Built-In Themes

Most of these themes break the guidelines I’ve just set out. Use sparingly, if at all! Many of them have unsuitable fonts, or very strong background colours, or just do not look pleasing to the eye. As you can see from the picture above, it’s very easy to produce a slide which is not visually pleasing. Fortunately, it is easy to change the entire theme in PowerPoint.

Hyperlinks

Do use these to call up resources from the internet — Youtube videos, informative websites, music clips. These things can be used to enrich the class. I find them essential, and PowerPoint is a great way to keep these links in a convenient package.

Animations

I do use animations when I want to gradually build up information on a slide. . It can be very effective to put a picture up, and then use the appear animation to highlight an area under discussion, or add an arrow to point out an interesting feature. I mostly use the “appear “animation. Text and objects flying in from the side quickly become irritating. Do not use sound effects — after the first few swooshes of text appearing on screen, the audience will find it very irritating, rather than amusing. Maybe once per presentation, as a special effect, otherwise if comes to be an ordinary effect.

The Flow of the Presentation

What I’ve written about here are just mechanics of creating an acceptable publication. But remember, it still needs a story-line — it’s a narrative, so you need to pay attention to the running order. PowerPoint is very useful for this because it’s so easy to shuffle slides around to get the best possible flow.

And Finally

Finally, as with George Orwell’s Final Guideline for writing in English (In his essay “Politics and the English Language”), follow these guidelines, unless they would result in something “downright barbarous”. I hope you find these notes useful. Please let me know your experiences with presentations.