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Free Thinking: Powerpoint – the defence

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Newspaper headlines declared that PowerPoint is “a disaster” and “should be ditched”, according to the latest research. Anyone who has sat through a particularly brain-numbing PowerPoint presentation may feel it's about time. But is it the tool or the way that it's used that is the problem, asks Martin Shovel?

Why does PowerPoint Presentations that Changed the World rank so high on the list of books that will never be written? Perhaps the clue is in the title. PowerPoint has been with us for over 20 years but during that time it has gained more of a reputation for sending the world to sleep than changing it.

Great orators, past and present, have managed to weave their magic with words alone. Would Nelson Mandela’s statement at the opening of his trial have been more powerful, or Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech more moving if they’d been delivered as PowerPoint presentations?

Unable to find a picture of an “iron curtain” in his collection of clip-art, Churchill would probably have had to abandon his iconic image in favour of something more mundane. Whereas the only limitation on an image conjured up by words is our imagination. Mental images are not confined and restricted by frames either – they don’t have edges.

So in our mind’s eye we can begin to appreciate the full enormity of Churchill’s “iron curtain” as we watch it descend “across the Continent”. The images inside our heads are usually more powerful and memorable than those outside them simply because they are our own creations and reflect our most intimate hopes, fears and aspirations.

Behind the headlines
PowerPoint bashing is a popular pastime – which is ironic given its ubiquity in the workplace. This month the popular press proclaimed that research carried out in Australia at the University of New South Wales by Professor John Sweller demonstrated conclusively that “the use of the PowerPoint presentation has been a disaster” and “it should be ditched.”

Being aware that the popular press is not always the most reliable reporter of scientific research, I decided to read the professor’s paper myself. Not surprisingly, the paper didn’t contain a single reference to PowerPoint but it did offer a couple of intriguing insights that every PowerPoint user should take into account when preparing a presentation.

Prof Sweller is interested in how the human mind processes and absorbs information. His research evidence suggests something that most of us would find very counterintuitive. For example, imagine a learning, or presenting, situation in which you show a slide with some written information on it. As the slide is shown the audience begins to read the words on it – they take in the information through their eyes.

Helping or hindering?
You may decide to help them by reading the words aloud at the same time in the belief that this will make it easier for them to absorb the information. But if you did this, Prof Sweller’s research suggests that you would actually be hindering their learning, not making it easier. According to Professor Sweller, the doubling up of additional, or redundant, information overloads their minds and significantly decreases their ability to understand what is being presented.

What does this situation remind you of? Could it be any number of PowerPoint presentations you’ve sat through in which a presenter has spent most of his or her time reading their slides aloud to you? No wonder you hardly remembered a thing when you left the room.

Different but complimentary
Interestingly, Prof Sweller’s other important finding is that if a learner is presented with two sources of information that refer to each other but are unintelligible separately – for example, a picture and a spoken commentary about the picture – then the learning experience is actually enhanced.

In the words of Prof Sweller: “It is effective to speak to a diagram, because it presents information in a different form. But it is not effective to speak the same words that are written, because it is putting too much load on the mind and decreases your ability to understand what is being presented.”

In simple terms, if you show a picture or diagram and talk about it, your audience will benefit because the two separate experiences complement and support each other. If, on the other hand, you put a slide with text on it and then proceed to read the text aloud, your audience will suffer from information interference and overload.

But PowerPoint isn’t the problem. PowerPoint is just a tool like any other. The problem is the way we use, or abuse, PowerPoint and the fact that we assume that every presentation requires it. Great presentations, like great speeches, should begin with words. If you take care to bring your language alive by using image words and metaphors, you might discover that you’ve no need to open PowerPoint at all.

* Martin Shovel is co-director of CreativityWorks, a learning consultancy that transforms people into more effective thinkers and communicators by developing their visual thinking abilities. Find out more by visiting www.creativityworks.net

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