Monday, 1 August 2011

Powerpoint. It's a mighty tool.

Thiszm18 blog post was prompted by a praise of Powerpoint over at the Naked Philologist - and rather than crowding the comments there, I'm doing my own blog post. With a great amount of "never ever" in it.

Having studied archaeology, I am totally used to papers with visual aides - and I had the transition time from photo/picture slides to Powerpoint during my time at university, so I know what you can do with slides, and I know how much better you can do with Powerpoint.

I rely heavily on Powerpoint, and I don't do a paper or a lecture without it. I need the visual stuff for my audience - you just can't talk about archaeology things without showing picture documentation of trenches and finds and architecture - and I also like to sneak in some visual jokes (one of my favourites is the lady beating her husband with a distaff). But totally apart from that, I speak without a fully written paper text and often even without any notes for my papers, and I mostly rely on the Powerpoint slides in front of me, on the computer, to keep track of what I want to say and what comes next. That is why I have slides with keywords or key phrases, original texts (plus citation for the text and translation), photos and drawings and reconstructions and pictures all mixed together into one paper. Take away my powerpoint... and I will not know what to say when, since you have just taken away all my memory aids and all my visual aids and all the other stuff I wanted to show.

I've also been known to bring along stuff like spindles, garments, cloth, deer antlers or whatever else is connected to my paper - either to brandish it or to demonstrate a process or, if the audience is small enough, to have it handed round for a proper feel of the thing. (The latter can be dangerous, though - since handling something and passing it on can be greatly distracting. I thus prefer nowadays to offer handling of the item(s) in question after the actual speaking part.)

However, Powerpoint can also go grossly wrong. So the things I would recommend for anyone thinking about using it are:
- Make sure your font is easy to read - something like Trebuchet, or Arial. Use only one font (two if you want to differentiate between original texts and modern language), and don't write too much on one slide. Never go below 20 pt font size. Never ever. Split the slide up into two slides instead.
- Powerpoint has those fancy phase-in and phase-out gadget buttons for your pics/items/slides. These I find utterly distracting - especially if they are used randomly. I prefer my pics to just appear and disappear without bells and whistles, and I have added a custom button to my Powerpoint that does exactly that to my item. Since I use several things on single slides, I use that button a lot.
Using only a simple appearance has the added benefit that if you really want to emphasise a picture, once in a very long while, a special appearance move will do that for you.
- Blinky text? Never ever. Really. Only distracts the eye of the viewer - and you don't want that Same goes for anything else that moves - just don't. (Videos are an exception to this, of course. Since they are watched, and then they are over and still again.)
- Go for good contrast between your text and the background. Don't use a background that has too much going on or any high contrast; if you want to use a pic as background, tweak its gamma, brightness and contrast until it is only a slightly coloured backdrop for your black text.
- Keep in mind that another computer and another beamer may skew your colours; yellow is especially hard to see on some beamers. Go for rather dark, clear colours if you need to show graphs or drawings; always make the lines thicker than you think they should be for easy reading, which translates to something between much thicker than necessary and ridiculously thick if viewed on your normal screen.
- Never use automatic slide change or appearance of items. Never ever. You might end up with a different programme version on the computer that your paper runs on, and that might dance to a different rhythm - letting all your slides rush by while you watch helplessly from the sidelines. I have seen a stack of pictures following each other much too fast quite a few times - and there was nothing the presenter could do to remedy this. Have each thing appear on its own, on your command, and you are safe from this.

Oh, and a final one not related to Powerpoint: If you are, say, an archaeologist and you are testing your lecture on, say, a group of physicists... do not be surprised if nobody gets your jokes. Sense of humour differs between academic disciplines, and a joke that will crack up a literary historian may leave an art historian dumbfounded. It took me a good while to find out that I wasn't as unfunny as the test audience made me feel, but they just did not get the jokes. So nowadays, I just hope that the actual audience has a sense of humour that is compatible with mine and add whatever funnies I feel would be nice and appropriate.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hear! Hear!

Just back from presenting at a conference that included 'Lightening Talks' - everyone gets a maximum of 2 minutes, except the keynote speakers who get half an hour each.

Stated rules: no animation, no hidden/revealed text. The slides were all placed in a giant single presentation to aid change-over so every participant had to keep to it.

Unstated rules which developed through necessity: lots of pictures, few and simple keywords, few slides, keep to time. It meant a lot of information was got across very quickly.

A debate that's been going a decade: I was taught to have a light background colour otherwise the slides look unfinished and black on white may be too glaring. My proofreader was told to always keep it black on white. What's the 'official' line on this?