Aisha Walker

Thinking onscreen

The ‘PowerPoint’ paradigm


 At a recent conference I asked casually “how can we escape the tyranny of PowerPoint?” and the answer I received was “Well, you tried… with Prezi”.  However, the question wasn’t about PowerPoint per se but about the ubiquity of presentation software.  Prezi is different from PowerPoint and less commonly used which gives it a certain freshness and impact but as Prezi becomes more popular then that impact diminishes.  Some people try to escape the convention of bullet lists by using only images in an attempt to capture audience attention.  The problem that I see, however, is that presentation software of any kind and no matter how imaginatively it is used, provides an external structure for a presentation.  The speaker has to ‘speak to the slides’ (or frames) and the audience tends to equate the ‘PowerPoint’ with the presentation. It can be difficult for the speaker to adapt the performance ‘in the moment’ because the dominant factor is the slides/frames rather than the audience.It’s now ten years since Tufte (2003a, 2003b) wrote his critiques of PowerPoint and we talk blithely of ‘death by PowerPoint’ and yet the PowerPoint paradigm is still pervasive.  As a university lecturer I receive statements of need from Disability Services that ask me to provide copies of slides to dyslexic students in advance of a lecture.  These requests never come with the rider “if you plan to use slides” but always with the assumption that slides will be used.  Lecturers who try to break away from using text-heavy slides may receive complaints from students that the slides do not contain enough information; students expect lecture content to be on the slides rather than in the spoken text (from which they have to make their own notes). However, when I am speaking I want my audience to listen to me rather than read text from a screen behind me.  I want to be able to digress from my plan if the audience reaction indicates it would b appropriate to do so.  I also want to attend talks/presentations where speakers are not tied to their slides.  Why is it so hard?

Note: I have used quotation marks around ‘PowerPoint’ because I am using it as an umbrella term for all presentation software.

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