The Cure for Death by Powerpoint

This is an edited version of the talk I gave in the Faculty of Arts Teaching and Leaning Workshop series at the University of Calgary on 20 October 2016.

I delivered it for university faculty, but I think it could apply equally to all classrooms — maybe even beyond.

UPDATE (28 November 2016): I’ll give another version of this talk to the wider university community on 20 January 2017. Click here for details

Here’s the abstract:

Most of us use slideshows like Powerpoint or Keynote to accompany our lectures and illuminate our points. But what principles and habits are we following when we write our slideshows? Are we showing students the right information, in the right way, at the right time?

In this workshop, you’ll design slideshows to match your teaching goals to students’ learning needs. You’ll critique some slideshows that just don’t work. You’ll learn about some features of these two programs, like text animations and embedded media. And you’ll learn how slides can tell stories and provoke conversations, not just deliver information.

First, a confession: I’m not a Powerpoint user. I use Keynote for Mac. But the phrase “Death by Powerpoint” is more common than “Death by Keynote” or “Death by (name-your-software)” so I had to use it. I added that to the memorable title of a 1996 novel by Gail Anderson-Dargatz, The Cure for Death by Lightning.

In short, I know the Mac and Keynote platforms better than any other — but what I’m talking about here is transferrable knowledge. It’s about principles, not tips and tricks specific to any platform.

Here’s my outline. I’ll address the principles of using slideshows, the planning stage — focusing on the what and why of slideshows, before the how — and then the computer and physical tools you can use to deliver them.

What are slideshows good for, in the classroom? They deliver key information — not too much, not too little — to students. You ought to share your slideshows with students; after all, when well designed they are just your skeletal notes, not a replacement for being in the room.

They can remind students of upcoming assignments and readings. They can provoke and inform your activities: what can you all do together, in this room at this time? You can review texts or timelines; compare translations; animate processes; look at pictures and discuss how representations work.

In sum, they are good for four things:

  1. The milestones or stages of a process
  2. The keywords of a given text
  3. The outlines of your presentation, or argument, or story
  4. The media (like video and audio files) that complement your presentation

Tell students what the arc of your presentation is: we’ll begin here, move there, and end here. Tell them what you’re going to cover, and then while the slideshow unfolds tell them where they are in that outline — slide 7 of 10, for instance.

Don’t over-format your slides. Find a well-designed template and stick with it.

Steven Pinker, the psychologist of language at MIT, says that slideshows can give visual shape to an argument:

Language is a linear medium: … But ideas are multidimensional… . When properly employed, PowerPoint makes the logical structure of an argument more transparent. Two channels sending the same information are better than one.

But there are some bad habits you should avoid. Don’t use distracting animations, like fireworks or the words flying in on butterfly wings. There are always exceptions: I once told students about a fire drill that would interrupt our class, by making the words appear in flames. But don’t over-use these tricks. Focus on the content, and leave fiddly animations to the end — if you have any time.

Another bad habit is distracting transitions, like confetti or revolving doors. Using them once or twice is fine — but only if you’re being ironic.

Don’t drown students in a sea of text. General rule: no more than about 5 bullet points, and about 5 words per bullet. Never use type smaller than 30pt. If you really must present all of this text, split it across two slides. But first, try to edit it down to keywords.

Another bad habit is moving too quickly through too many slides. If you’re on a tight schedule, try putting the time on your slides: so you know that (say) by the time you get to slide 6, it should be no later than 9:45.

Don’t use a slideshow when a face-to-face, focused conversation would be more effective. Or when you need to demonstrate a thinking process, rather than its outcomes. There are just some things that won’t be reduced to bullet points. Make your slides fade into the background: offering prompts, say, but not delivering on the outcomes of student thinking.

So. The first principle of slideshow design is (unsurprisingly) also the first principle of teaching itself: how will your teaching meet the students’ learning needs? You need a clear understanding of what they are, and how you’ll realize or provoke them with your slides. What information do they need? What activities should they do? What order should all of these fall into?

Give students the right information in the right format at the right moment. It’s a simple formula for success, but difficult to calibrate for your circumstances.

A template — one you design or adapt, or just the best one that a given program has — offers multiple advantages. First, it saves you a lot of time. Second, it gives students a sense of the course ‘brand’ (as you can see here), and the typical components of every session you have together. I design a template like this for each course I teach, with the typical slides I’ll need. They remind that I need, each class, to tell students what we’ll do the next time we meet.

They also highlight the key words in important passages from the textbook or other course materials we’re reading. This is for ease of reference as we look at these texts, and it literally keeps them on the same page.

Finally, I also need slides to remind me to pace myself — and to pause for questions, for provoking discussion about a topic, and for framing our classes around a Question of the Day. I show that slide at the beginning of class, and again when we’re wrapping up — so students can think about it first, and then apply what they’ve learned. If they aren’t walking out of that room just 60 minutes smarter about that question, then something’s not right.

I used to pause periodically and ask, “Any questions?”. I’d be met with silence, because that phrasing suggests that questions are the exception. Now I say, instead, “What questions do you have?”. Students feel just that much more encouraged to voice the questions that must be in their heads.

These slides remind me to punctuate my delivery with breaks for reflection, to integrate when they’ve just learned with what they know already.

I teach a lot of Shakespeare films, using multiple clips. Rather than fumbling with DVDs or iTunes I use MPEG Streamclip to export parts of the DVDs to MP4 format, which I can drag-and-drop into Keynote. When you want different short videos to combine into a wider argument or activity, this is invaluable.

You can’t hear it now, but this slide has an opera singer performing this part of the libretto. Combine music and text in any way that meets your goals: like playing the “Jeopardy” theme when students are writing answers to a quiz question, or using slow piano music to encourage them to read a sonnet really slowly. I did that once, and added a text-animation that revealed each word of the sonnet in sequence, after a one-second delay.

Here’s where you have to experiment a bit to find the software that you can access, and that gives your slideshows the design and features you want. I’m partial to Keynote, but others have their own advantages.

You’ll also need all the necessary equipment to make sure it goes well. David Sparks, here, has quite the toolkit. I just make sure I always carry a power cord for my MacBook Pro; a lightning-to-VGA adapter; a spare VGA cable; and my trusty Kensington clicker and laser pointer.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the excellent Macsparky Field Guide by David Sparks. It’s inexpensive (in the iBooks store) and really valuable. It’ll tell you a lot more about how do use all the features of Keynote and other systems, like “Magic Move” and Presenter notes and animated graphs and all the rest.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you find this useful. Please share it if you do, and drop me a line — to let me know, to point me to other resources on the web, or for any other reason.

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