Chapter Seven: Visual Presentations and Powerpoint

Chapter Seven: Visual Presentations and Powerpoint

Chapter Seven: Visual Presentations and PowerPoint

In this chapter we're going to discuss some general visual principles for live technical presentations and then consider the most common format for these presentations today--PowerPoint.

Visual Presentations--General Principles

It's easy to forget sometimes that when you're doing a live presentation, you're creating a visual document. It just seems like a different medium because it's using the dimension of time as well as the three spatial dimensions. But if you were to freeze-frame your presentation or take still photographs of it, you would see tableaux or scenes that you're presenting to your audience. It pays to consider the effectiveness of these tableaux as vehicles for technical information. Let's begin with a recent presentation that I made, a tableau of which appears in Figure 1:

photo of phone interview presentation
Figure 1: Phone interview dramatization for 2006 GSA conference, NMT

This is a dramatization of a phone interview for an academic job. Can you guess which part I'm playing? The cues helping you make an educated guess that I'm the interviewee include the divider, which symbolizes a separation in space, the fact I'm by myself holding a handset to my head, and the fact that I'm gesturing as if I'm explaining. Meanwhile, the "committee" on the other side of the divider is gesturing as if they're listening and evaluating.

The props, the gestures, these are all media of visual communication. Another medium you can't see in this tableau is the handout that each member of the audience has in their hands listing important points for preparing and performing in a phone interview. The audience can constantly compare what they see in the dramatization to what is written in the handout.

You can't evaluate the effectiveness of our presentation without thinking about (a) the audience, (b) the purpose of the presentation, and (c) genres or media we had to choose from when preparing this presentation. We could have given a PowerPoint that listed all the points in our handouts. But learning interviewing skills takes practice, and it's easiest to practice behaviors that you've seen modeled for you. So, we chose the dramatization to model both good and bad behaviors for phone interviews. We felt this medium was the most effective because our audience was graduate students getting ready to do job interviews, and we felt they needed an engaging presentation (drama) that would model behaviors they might need to adopt in a very short time period, perhaps even just a few days. Because it's easy to forget small details in a dramatic presentation, we reinforced our points with a second medium (handout) that would serve as a memory jogger when the students were preparing for their interviews.

Our GSA presentation is just one small example of the multiple visual considerations that go into preparing a technical presentation. As you can see, the presentation is the primary medium, and that will always involve you getting up in front of other people and talking to them. The secondary media that reinforce your points and assist your audience's learning and memory are many but can include PowerPoint, handouts, video, posters, visual aids for the audience to handle or pass around, and dramatizations. Here are some general principles of presentation to keep in mind no matter what your secondary media are:

  • Dress professionally
  • Speak loudly, clearly, and slowly
  • Direct your gaze to every section of the audience at least once every 2 minutes
  • Control body language to exclude distracting behaviors such as rubbing the back of your head or your nose
  • Control vocal presentation to limit tics such as "um" and "like"
  • Time your presentation to conclude at or under the alloted time
  • Choose the best reinforcing media for the audience and situation
  • Arrive early to greet attendees and make sure your microphones and other technical equipment are bug-free
  • Try not to step into your screen, if you're using projection
  • Limit humor, and only use humor that applies directly to your subject of presentation
  • practice, practice, practice. I'm sorry, did you just say, "Practice"? Why, yes, I did, and once more with feeling: Practice!

These suggestions are all aimed toward a few principles that improve the chances of your audience accepting what you have to present: establishing your ethos (credibility), keeping the audience's attention, and focusing their attention on the information you're presenting, not on the presentation itself. There are no substitutes for preparation and practice. A rule of thumb for preparation is 8x. If you have a 15-minute presentation, it should take you at least two hours to prepare it, assuming that you have all the data ready to go. Preparation includes doing audience analysis and selecting the appropriate reinforcing media. The rule of thumb for practice is 3x. You should practice your presentation at least three times before you give it, and the final of these runs should include setting up all of the technical equipment you will need. It is an excellent idea to videotape yourself giving your presentation. Once you have been through this experience, your nervousness will decrease and you will eliminate many of your tics and distracting gestures.


Now that we have discussed the primary medium of visual presentation, we need to examine the visual rhetoric of the most popular reinforcing medium: Microsoft PowerPoint. Edward Tufte launches many germane criticisms of PowerPoint in his booklet, "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint." His basic point can be summarized as follows: Conway's law says that no medium of presentation can transcend the culture that made it. PowerPoint was created within the software industry, which does two things: coding and marketing. Therefore, PowerPoint is designed to "sell" ideas that must be presented in shorthanded, relentlessly sequential bits. It therefore hampers attempts to lay out complex ideas panoramically, and all "serious" technical presentations involve complex ideas that must be viewed panoramically to be adequately understood. A "serious" technical presentation is one that is required to inform a decision upon which significant amounts of resources or safety of personnel or consumers depend. In these situations, Tufte recommends a technical report in the following format: a handout consisting of an 11x17 sheet of heavy paper folded in half widthwise to create four 81/2 x 11 pages. Tufte claims that this higher resolution of this format presents the equivalent of anywhere from 50 to 250 PowerPoint slides; it has the added benefit of being portable and reusable, which a PowerPoint is not (unless and until it can be posted on a website whose URL is communicated to the audience).

To illustrate the poor applicability of PowerPoint to serious presentations, Tufte references Peter Norvig's "reconstruction" of the Gettysburg Address as a PowerPoint. It is truly hysterical. On a much more somber note, his brochure contains an analysis of the PowerPoint that Boeing presented to NASA officials when asked for a risk assessment of damage to the Spaceshuttle Columbia after loss of "ramp" or insulating foam in takeoff. The PowerPoint obscures the fact that Boeing's models have failed to determine whether or not the shuttle will burn up on re-entry; consequently, their final assessment of "we have no evidence that it will blow up" is read as "it probably won't blow up," and NASA decides to land the shuttle without repairing the wing, with disastrous consequences. Tufte makes a convincing argument that part of the fault for this travesty lies with PowerPoint itself and the way it hampered Boeing's ability to communicate the technical data from their models to the NASA engineers.

While Tufte's criticisms of PowerPoints and attendant solutions are worthy, they assume an ideal situation in which our budgets include four-color printing costs for handouts for audiences up to 200 people. Tufte is also not particuarly concerned with paper waste or postability to the internet. So, given that many of us will have to keep making PowerPoints for some presentations, how can we adapt his principles to try to use the medium most effectively? What follows here is a list of suggestions. I'm also including a link to a PowerPoint presentation I have created that illustrates and annotates further cautions when using PowerPoint:

  1. PowerPoint is terrible at presenting text. Don't present text beyond titles, captions, and perhaps few-word bullets for your Overview slide, if necessary.
  2. PowerPoint can be used as a slide projector for low-resolution graphics such as .gifs and .jpgs. Make sure all captions are presented at 16 pt. at a minimum for readability.
  3. Whenever possible, offer a handout to accompany your presentation with data and references. Do NOT just print out the slides. Make a technical handout that goes significantly beyond the PowerPoint in terms of data presented.


Use the Auto-Content Wizard in PowerPoint (Click "New" under the File menu and then select "From the Auto-Content Wizard" under the New submenu in the window that pops up to the right) to generate a presentation on a technical problem or issue in your major field or on a topic of interest to you. I repeat, technical. You can use the "Presenting a Technical Report" template, but there are others that you might prefer, including "Communicating Bad News" or "Presenting a Strategy." Leave me notes in the notes fields for each slide about your experiences using the Auto-Content Wizard. Did it help you invent your presentation? Did it let you say what you wanted to say? How easy was it to customize? Discuss these topics and more in the notes fields.