PowerPointless: How Not To Do A Training Session

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Is it time we banned the PowerPoint presentation?

Oh my God! The last CPD session I attended puked 41 slides of pure PowerPoint over a room of poor souls who had lost the will to live. That’s not the worst of it. One twilight session was “death by 115 slides”.

Why do we put up with it? PowerPoint zombification isn’t just an education thing of course, it’s everywhere. But teachers should know better.

Teachers who are great at teaching suddenly forget who they are when it comes to training colleagues, becoming “presenters” with matching slides. They go from punchy pedagogues to monotone monsters and it is all PowerPoint’s fault. These are good people, people I like and respect but slide a PowerPoint into their world and I begin to resent them. This ropey CPD is an hour or two of my life I’m never going to get back.

Originally designed for the Macintosh computer and first called “Presenter”, PowerPoint might be good for a sales pitch in the corporate world but it feels uncomfortable in education. What are we selling?

Dumb and Dumber

Bent Meier Sørensen argues PowerPoint “produces stupidity” and is toxic to education and he certainly isn’t alone in voicing this. Fixated on fonts and formats, PowerPoint does something to brilliant people. It makes them incapable of speaking in public without being both boring and prolix. They are too busy polishing their presentation slides they forget to dance, forget to animate and forget to teach… themselves.

Great teachers are not necessarily great speakers. The PowerPoint becomes their emotional crutch, their visual lectern to lean on and their back-up if they run out of things to say. It sabotages the power of speech. Okay it provides a structure but PowerPoint incarcerates its audience and subjects them to a bullet-pointed hell. People cannot move because of cognitive overload.

Some CPD shows are just reading sessions where the text saturated slides are read to you in glorious monotone. No one is listening and no one is reading it either because the slides are too busy and too full. Did no one tell them that people cannot read and listen at the same time?

Take a look on Twitter and you will see people posting a presentation they are ‘doing’ or attending and the slides are a nightmare. The “less is more” message hasn’t reached them yet.

Some of the most ineffective CPD is where the PowerPoint presenter skips half a dozen slides at a time “because we are running out of time” but “don’t worry because you’ll all get a copy of the presentation.” These flash before you like a Victorian style moving picture flick book as you try and piece together what the pie charts and line graphs mean. What everyone knows is that these were the really boring slides,  and the CPD bod has just worked out that a sea of angry faces with folded arms will attack as one army if the slides are shown.

Then there are those PowerPoints that try to impress but don’t. Some presenters still use spinning graphics and the special effects that that make words appear, disappear or move. Yes, they were popular about twenty years ago.

Keep It Simple Stupid

PowerPoint dominates around 95% of the presentational market but not all CPD sessions are like this. Some trainers/facilitators/consultants/presenters/researchers actually remember to speak with the audience rather than at them.

I attended one training event where the trainer had just one slide. This maverick really wanted to upset the apple cart and he did. His one slide just said his name and the venue, that was it. What on Earth did he do without PowerPoint? It barely seems plausible but we discussed stuff with each other in groups and listened to the words coming out of the guy’s mouth. This felt ground-breaking but looking around the room not one person was asleep.

He relied on carefully prepared content he kept in his head mixed with ready wit and a flip chart. There was not a deck of slides in sight. Ditch the slides and we can speak freely.

The PowerPoint Fallacy

Some people really hate PowerPoint and see it as PowerPointless.

Matthias Poehm set up the Anti-PowerPoint Party because he sees PowerPoint as a waste of time, it conveys information poorly and teaches people very little. He makes the point that some of the greatest speeches and presentations of our time haven’t had a PowerPoint backdrop. Some argue that we don’t need to ditch PowerPoint but use it more intelligently. Meyer’s 12 Principles of Multimedia Learning is certainly worth a read.

Increasingly we see more “explainer videos” being used in presentations and these have gained in popularity especially through the RSA Animate series. Richard Wiseman studied the science behind using these whiteboard animations and found learning improves by 15%.

The problem is some presentations have now become explainer heavy and are used too much. The videos now take over and the presenter is largely redundant. It was once the must-have software but PowerPoint gets in the way of a good presentation.

When it comes to the next post-mortem on your feedback forms, what you don’t want to see is: death by PowerPoint. Just get the flip chart back and use it for a proper interactive experience.

Teachers don’t need PowerPoint comfort blankets and its high time conferences, seminars and sessions banned them.

17 thoughts on “PowerPointless: How Not To Do A Training Session

  1. Have to agree and disagree. I am predominantly a visual learner and I use visual image based slides in my Powerpoints because I mainly work with visual art educators. It works for us both. I rarely have text in my slides.

  2. Hi, I am a 46 year old who has just entered into higher education at ARU Cambridge, I am doing a BAE in primary education . I have chosen you as my subject for a presentation. I initially chose five probable candidates, but as your methods are so contemporary I chose to research you. Is there any one thing that you personally think I should include, perhaps something that is not available on the WWW? A personal response from you would give depth to my presentation. Regards Caroline

      1. Thank you so much for your response. I am doing the presentation in an art and design module. The lecturer wants me to talk about my chosen candidate as though you were present and being introduced to the class. I have included your childhood, education, career and @teachertoolkit. It would be great if I could include something you have personally told me. Many thanks.

  3. I thought I must add that it is an extended degree that I am doing, and this is my foundation year. It is ‘full on’ and consists of seven modules over two semesters. Regards, Caroline.

  4. Thank you . Your comment adds originality to my presentation as it is not a fact I found on google! Prentations are tomorrow . Regards Caroline.

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