Here's a riddle for you: What's the difference between Microsoft PowerPoint and a sledgehammer? One is a versatile tool you can use to totally destroy things and smash apart complicated constructs, and also to build bridges and construct complicated structures. The other is just a big hammer.
All kidding aside, PowerPoint presentation software either performs with finesse and sophistication or as your basic blunt object. Its ability to aid your students' understanding is a gift; unfortunately, trainers and presenters alike frequently misuse the software, usually without even knowing the damage they inflict or the problems they cause.
I will address two areas: how to develop a PowerPoint presentation, and how to properly present PowerPoint "slides" within the learning environment. Success with one does not guarantee success with the other.
I Thought PowerPoint Was My Friend
Many of us started out as trainers during the Stone Age. Literally. By that I mean we started teaching when our only real visual aid was a chalkboard (originally made of slate). I ran through a fairly rapid succession that went like this: chalkboard to overhead transparencies, transparencies to 35mm slides, slides to PowerPoint and an LCD projector. Along the way things got pretty expensive, but each step made it a lot easier to convey my message to my students. Eventually, as prices began to moderate, it also became easier to afford the technology that made it all possible. Today, PowerPoint and LCD projectors are as ubiquitous as a ham sandwich.
Trainers who "grew up" this way often avoid some of the pitfalls of PowerPoint, such as using excessively wordy slides, because they had to produce training materials the hard way once upon a time. But many of us fall into the other trap, using too many "whiz-bang" special effects, mainly because we can.
It's very easy, even with the best of intentions, to create monumentally boring slide shows and/or mismanage the learning environment and get in the way of our message.
Make a Point
First of all, before you start cranking out slides, make sure your creation supports your message without overpowering it. PowerPoint for the sake of PowerPoint is pointless. Always start with a lesson plan or outline with clearly defined objectives in mind before you start making slides. Decide what you want your students to learn; then decide how to structure your message. Only then should you start building your slide show. You can spend a lot of time throwing information at your students, yet leave them feeling like your message held no meat.
Robert Frost said it best: "There are two kinds of teachers: the kind that fills you with so much quail shot that you can't move and the kind that just gives you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies." Dumping info into your students' heads can quickly become an exercise in PowerPoint for PowerPoint's sake.
There are really only a few fundamental errors made by presenters when building a PowerPoint presentation, but like officer-survival errors, we keep making the same ones over and over again.
Your audience must be able to see your message. Use the wrong color mix between the text on your slide and the background, and your message is lost. Use starkly contrasting colors; your presentation doesn't have to be boring. Black or dark-blue text on a white background is great for partially lit rooms; white or yellow text on a black or dark-blue background works better in a darkened room. (A white screen in a dark room is blinding, while a dark background in a bright room will appear washed out.) Avoid such combinations as blue-red, because the colors will run together and prove very hard to read.
Standardize your presentation based on one font, and pick something sans serif without the little "feet" of some fonts. One excellent example: Arial, a standard Windows font. (Times New Roman is a common font with feet.) Arial is clean and clear, and easy to read.
Avoid using font sizes smaller than 24-point type, especially in large rooms. Remember, the farther away the back row, the harder it will be for students to see your slides, especially in a partially lit room. Bigger, bolder text is easier on the eyes.
Stick with the 6x6 rule: Don't use more than six lines or bullets on a slide and no more than six words on each line or in each bullet point. Even six is frequently too much. Minimize the text on each slide. If you try to squeeze your entire point on one slide, it will be hard for your audience to read. They'll focus more on the slide than on your message, and if everything is on the slide, why should they listen to you?
Avoid art for art's sake. Choose images that support the slide's content, and think about how much some images can detract from the impact of your message. Make sure you use images that are properly sized for your slides. If, for instance, you grab a tiny picture off the Internet and blow it up on your slide, it will appear grainy and pixilated, and ultimately sloppy and amateurish.
Make sure the images you select for your slides are appropriate for your anticipated audience. I recently attended a presentation at a national conference, and the presenter used images involving some nudity. While the images supported key points in the presenter's material, the nudity was probably not appropriate for a mixed audience. Remember: Inappropriate images on PowerPoint slides are similar to inappropriate videos or the use of profanity. You never know who's sitting in your audience. Even cops can be very sensitive to such things.
There is a lot of material available for you to use on your slides, but choose carefully. Usually, copyright issues don't pose much of a problem if you simply include images in your slides that you present only to your class. If you place images on Web pages, or include them in materials you distribute widely, you must obtain permission of the copyright holder, especially if it's for profit.
For an example of improvements on slides, please download and view the pdf located at the end of this article.
Many presenters have switched from VHS videotapes to computerized videos, typically captured as MPEG files. This great advancement enables presenters to use video in ways never before possible with tape. However, video can prove problematic when presented via a computer and an LCD projector. Make sure you experiment thoroughly before attempting to use video in front of an audience, especially if your videos are on a DVD. In short, video usually requires significant computer horsepower to run smoothly, can create synchronization problems between your computer and your projector, and almost always involves sound, which means you must bring decent speakers, because those in laptops and projectors rarely prove adequate.
Speaking of sound, I recommend limiting your use of sound files to the soundtracks of your videos. Using catchy little sound effects, such as gunshots and typewriter keys, almost always distracts and takes away from your message, causing the audience to focus on the sound itself.
No matter how much work you put into all of the items mentioned here, if you are careless with spacing, alignment, spelling, grammar and punctuation, you will look like a careless amateur. Trust me on this you cannot be too obsessive when it comes to these details. Proofread your materials three times, print out a hard copy and re-proof them. Ask six of your closest friends to proof them for you. Do whatever it takes to make them as error-free as you can. Strive for perfection.
PowerPoint provides many neat transition effects for moving from one slide to the next, as well as many different animation effects that can "fly-in" or "boomerang" your text onto your slide. These are cool, but when used excessively, they distract and irritate your audience. Many PowerPoint users make this mistake. Unless you're very experienced, select one standard, simple transition and text animation effect, and stick with it throughout your presentation. Whatever effect you pick, set it to occur "fast" or "very fast." There's nothing worse than using an effect that makes your audience wait while your text appears or your next slide lazily floats into place.
Managing Your Presentation
Once you've assembled your slide show, proofed it umpty-seven times and rehearsed it with the same equipment you will use to deliver it, you are ready for the classroom or presentation hall. Avoid common errors presenters make that can detract from your delivery.
The Right Projector
If possible, select a projector with at least XGA (1024x768) resolution. This is the minimum resolution needed for good-looking video and images. Cheaper projectors, such as an SVGA unit with 800x600 resolution, work fine for text but often make images and videos jaggedy.
Set up your projector square to the screen. If it's available, use the keystone adjustment on the projector; keystoning is what happens when you have to aim the projector above horizontal to get your entire image onto your screen (this makes the sides of the projected image take on a V shape). Keystone correction adjusts your image so that it's square. (Most projectors nowadays feature built-in keystone correction.) Set up the screen as high as possible in order to project images where people in the back of the room can see them. Ideally, get the biggest screen you can. Using a 4-foot-square screen in a room of 200 people is ridiculous.
Positioning & Movement
Western cultures read from left to right. Set up your screen so that most of the time the screen will be on your left as you face the audience. That way, their eyes will naturally flow from you to the screen as they listen to you. That's not to say you can't move around the room you should but if you're in the front of the room, your audience will be much more comfortable if the screen is set up this way.
If possible, avoid walking between the projector and the screen, thereby casting a giant shadow. While this may prove impossible due to presentation room limitations, the less you do it the better. And never stand in the light of the projector and talk or point to items on the screen.
Above all else, look at your audience, not the screen. One of the most common sins committed by presenters is constantly looking at the screen, sometimes even reading aloud from the screen to the audience. Know your material well enough to avoid this trap. Again, if you read the screen to the audience when they can read it for themselves, what do they need you for? At the most, occasionally glance at the screen to orient yourself to the specific slide you are presenting and to ensure no error messages have popped up on your computer.
Tip: Set up your laptop so you can view the screen as you face the audience; this way you can see a slide without turning your back to your audience.
If you use a pointer, make sure it's bright enough for all to see, including yourself. If you must wave it around so you can find the dot, it's not bright enough. And use it sparingly; constantly waving the laser dot around the screen distracts and irritates your audience.
By the way, the brightest laser diodes available to the general public are green lasers. You'll spend a little more than you would for a red one, but it's much more effective in the classroom, especially in large venues.
Using Your Computer with a Projector
I could say a lot here, but there are only a couple things you really need to know. First, always start up your projector first, then your laptop. As the computer boots up, it and the projector should find each other and synchronize their signals. If you're working with older equipment, you may have to hit a key combination on your computer to activate its external-monitor connection (check your manual). With some computers, you can operate either the internal or the external monitor, but with most newer equipment, you typically can activate both at the same time, so set it up this way if you can.
Usually you'll see the same image on your projector that you see on your laptop. This works fine, especially if your laptop and projector use the same resolution. Increasingly, however, laptops use much higher-resolution screens than projectors or are configured in the widescreen format, while many projectors throw a more standard, squarish image (known as 4:3). If that's the case, the projector can distort the image, or your videos won't synchronize correctly.
If this happens, right-click anywhere on your Windows desktop, select Properties and click on the Settings tab. You should see two squares representing your two monitors, probably numbered 1 and 2. Number 1 is your internal monitor. Click on number 2, which represents your projector's image. Check the box marked "Extend my Windows desktop onto this monitor," then click OK. Now you'll see a normal image on your laptop but only your desktop wallpaper on the projected image. Notice that you can roll your cursor all the way off your internal monitor and onto the projected image (your extended desktop).
After you start PowerPoint, hit F5 to start the slide show, and you'll see your show start on the projected image, but your laptop will still show PowerPoint in editing mode. If you go to slide-sorter view, you can see all your slides, while your audience sees only the slideshow.
If you have your laptop set so that you are seeing the same image on your internal screen as you are projecting, there's a little known trick that's great for jumping around in your show. Let's say you're running out of time but still have many slides left, and you want to jump ahead. Rather than flipping through all the intervening slides, just identify the number of the slide you want to jump to (perhaps from a printed copy of your slides, printed as a "handout"), hit the numbers on your keyboard, and push Enter. Your slide show will seamlessly jump to your chosen slide, with your audience none the wiser.
You can also experiment with Presenter View. On the Slide Show menu, select Set Up Show, click the check box marked Show Presenter View and click OK. This will provide you with a set of presenter's tools on your internal screen, while your audience sees only the slide show. This requires that you have your desktop extended to your second monitor or projector, as discussed earlier. Also, note that the exact way this functions depends on your equipment, so practice, practice, practice.
For more computer tips, see "Keystrokes" below.
I could say a lot more about delivering a PowerPoint presentation, but I'm out of space. If you're a presenter or trainer and want to keep improving, observe other trainers' style. Watch for the little things they do to help them get their message across. Especially watch for the things they do that distract the audience and detract from their message even the best presenters have bad habits or blind spots in their teaching styles. Also observe news anchors and successful politicians. If you really like someone's presentation, or really dislike it, try to figure out why. It's almost always more than just their words.
Stay safe, and wear your vest!