Confessions of a PowerPoint convert

A reluctant professor finds that PowerPoint presentations can enhance the quality of his teaching.

I have been a relatively late adopter of Microsoft’s PowerPoint. This is partly out of a general technoconservatism (perhaps a particularly inappropriate attitude for an FCW blogger, but whatever) and partly out of a view that slides interfere with communication between a speaker and the audience by directing the audience’s attention away from the speaker.

But a few years ago, I did make the switch, though reluctantly. More recently, I had three epiphanies that made me change my attitude very dramatically.

The first was seeing how grad students on the PhD job market making presentations at the Kennedy School had greatly improved the visual content and appeal of slides, replacing busy text-filled slides featuring thick black lettering with pictures, colors and animation, going light on text. I realized that I as a presentation participant found the slides engaging and helpful to my own retention of the messages.

Second, I had an interesting reaction attending the job talk presentation of a PhD student in history who had no slides at all but presented his material the way everyone used to present it – as a lecture, half-read from sheets of note paper. My reaction was that this presentation seemed incredibly old-fashioned and dinosauric, very uninteresting – and this reaction coming from a dinosaur.

Lastly, I have been increasingly noticing in the last two years that my own younger students, products of the text-message age, have had an increasingly difficult time being able to relate to material that isn’t put down in written, visual form.

As a result of all this, I introduced slides for the first time in my executive education teaching this last spring. I had always been extremely hesitant to use slides in a discussion class, on the view that If you summarized material that was being discussed in slides, it signaled to participants that you knew what you wanted to come out in class discussion before the discussion took place. But I decided to try it.

I tried to follow the best practices I observed among grad student presentations. I made them text-light, with quick bullet points rather than lengthy disquisitions, with different colors and animation (zooming, shimmying, sentences appearing from the right side of the screen) for the words. I extensively used visuals (for example, to illustrate a point about how long it takes to learn better surgery techniques, I showed a visual of an operating room) and quotes (which I previously would have read to the class out loud). I did not put discussion conclusions on slides, but instead used the slides to list topic areas or themes (rather than spending class time to elicit these themes) and, as part of the conclusions, to list points, often coming from academic research, that I knew from past experience seldom got raised in class.

I saw the first results while I was teaching, which was a dramatic increase in the amount of student notetaking. But I just got more detailed results -- my students’ evaluations of the first classes where I used the PowerPoint presentations. My overall teaching ratings went up. But there was a very dramatic increase in one specific area: “Clarity of the main ideas presented in class.” With the slides, participants were able to absorb main points and themes better.

This has been a real eye-opener. I know some people believe slides inhibit learning. I am now inclined to think that, used well, they really do help learning. And this is with executives who are not part of the videogame, text-message generation. I haven’t even tried this yet on my twenty-something master’s students; this will happen when the semester starts in a few weeks. There is something here, I think, not just for professors, but for managers or anybody else trying to get messages across.