Dochula Pass, Bhutan

I was just pointed to an article entitled “Missing the PowerPoint of public speaking” by Guy Kewney (the URI ends with ‘death_by_powerpoint’).

I’m sorry, but I thought that was a fairly lame article.

First out, it is not about PowerPoint, but about the use of slides. And you could very easily replace ‘PowerPoint’ with ‘Slidy’ [an XHTML-based slide presentation tool used at the W3C] throughout the article.

Next, the author seems to assume that ‘visual notes’ have to be written sentences of text. In his conclusion he says that his ‘fundamental assumption’ is

“If you engage the audience, get them to respond in some way, you’ll hold their attention and get good feedback. I don’t know how you’d set up a PowerPoint show that would allow that flexibility.”

While I’ll concede that a very large proportion of speakers do plaster their slides with text, it’s not inevitable. I try to use slides mostly to show pictures or illustrations, which I then talk about and point at, but document elsewhere in notes. (See for example my presentation “Practical & Cultural Issues in Designing International Web Sites”). I find slides, when used that way, a very powerful tool to assist communication. A picture conveys more than words, and facilitates understanding. I also find the examples used to be particularly effective in helping a listener remember things that were said – particularly when they come across a similar example in their work.

You can also use slides to graphically help the user understand where they are in the discussion and what the current topic is. That can be a significant help in keeping people on board or guiding them towards your conclusion (and even keeping the attention of people who know about the topic addressed by part of the talk by showing them how that fits in with other stuff you will say that perhaps they didn’t know, etc.)

Slides can also help you in structuring your discussion, bringing it in on time, and summarising key points. Of course, they have to be designed with care and used properly to do that.

I’ve seen plenty of people in conferences get a third of the way through their slides and realise that they have run out of time. What’s bad there is that people are just spewing out poorly designed slide content, and then not, as the author says, engaging with the audience.

But done right, creating a slide presentation can really help structure (and importantly weed out, compact and bring down to an appropriate size) your thoughts, even if you don’t plan to project the slides. If you have 50 text-heavy slides for a 20 minute presentation, you can see, if you look, that it might be difficult to fit all your points in the allotted time. Because slides tend to make you think of a presentation in terms of components, however, you are also often likely to be able to see easily where slides (and therefore information) can be pruned to fit the allotted time while still getting over the message.

For what it’s worth, in my mind, the critical part of creating an effective presentation is always the process of deciding what to now leave out, after you’ve decided what to put in. I usually start with my intended conclusion/effect, then decide what are the major points I need to make to get to that conclusion, and then use my time constaints and knowledge about the audience to decide how many points I need and how long I have to make each point. The argument is often more important than the data. You can’t be persuasive if you disrespect your audience.

By the way, if I do have a page with bullets on, I try to always use builds. This keeps the user focused on what you are currently saying, reduces the stress of them trying to match text with speech, and avoids them reading ahead to stuff that needs their attention during the earlier points if it is to be properly understood.

PowerPoint, by the way, is a very handy tool for creating and organizing the types of slide I like to make. Note however that I try to prepare slide notes or articles for people to rediscover the information later, and make them and the slides available in a portable format such as valid XHTML with CSS, or PDF

Having said that, I suppose it also comes down to individual speaking styles. I can think of many occasions when I sat in conferences listening to a poor speaker and thanked my lucky stars that they had committed the main ideas in succinct and well-organized form to their slides, because it helped me understand what they were actually trying to say.

Another thought about the article. Guy says

“There are indeed a few situations – of the ‘blackboard notes’ lecture type – where PowerPoint is actually useful – where you want to have your audience stop and write down what you’re saying.”

I can’t think of any such occasions. Memories come back to me of one lecturer at Cambridge (and others elsewhere) who would spend lesson after lesson writing notes on speech synthesis on the blackboard, which we then copied to our notebooks. It seemed then, and seems now, like a monumental waste of time. I’d much rather have a copy of the notes given to me. Apart from it sparing my aching wrist, I could have digested the content that way in a fraction of the time.

The value of being in the presence of the person conveying the knowledge is the time that it makes available for presenter to bring the topic to life by their presentation style (including possibly unwritten humour or memorable anecdotes), and the opportunity for the audience to ask and debate questions. If I knew in advance that someone at a conference was going to just repeat their paper or slides verbatim, I’d much rather spend my time in another track.

Another thought, unrelated to Guy’s article. Many of the Takahashi-style presentations I’ve seen don’t always impress me. It’s good to get the user away from writing long sentences on the slides. And a single large word on a page can have a strong impact temporarily. But after a few slides like that, the impact begins to be lost, I begin to find myself less able to distinguish words that need to convey impact from those that are just fillers, and I too become lost, in terms of where we are in the presentation. I think it is more useful to diagrammatically help the user see (useful) relationships between concepts rather than just flash them up in serial fashion. Like a site map, showing how ideas interconnect can help your listener better assimilate the relationships between the ideas you are putting before them.

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Picture of the page in action.

This tool allows you to search for subtags that have, say, ‘french’ in their description (there are currently 11), or to find out what that mysterious ‘ch’ subtag stands for (there are 2 possibilities).

Update: You can now also search for a hyphen-separated sequences of subtags, such as sl-IT-nedis and find out what each of the component subtags mean.

Alternatively, you can simply list all current language tags, or script tags, or variants, etc.

For months I’ve been wanting to write a small, Web-based tool for finding things in the subtag registry without having to work on the (for many people, intimidating) raw text file on the IANA site.

Tom Gruner created an initial tool for pretty printing the IANA list, which handled enough of the basics to allow me to use the little time I have these days to add the search functionality on top.

If you have JavaScript running, you are shown just the tags and descriptions initially, but by clicking on those you can reveal all additional information in the registry for a given tag. I also highlight tags that are deprecated, so you can see that straight away.

(PS: Some final tweaks to the code will come when I have a spare moment for things like making the expanding list more accessible, etc.)