Less is more

2252338216_0ce0f5d73c_b1I met with a student the other day who said to me “I didn’t finish my Powerpoint presentations because I was SO confused!” He went on to explain that in one class they are working on creating presentations in Powerpoint using more of a Presentation Zen style-minimal words, powerful visual imagery, etc. But then in his other class where he was supposed to create another Powerpoint, he was instructed to include a lot of information in the Powerpoint. Now this is a student who struggles with following directions anyway, but add to that two directly conflicting sets of instructions on two very similar assignments…he was doomed!

Seeing presentations done in a more ‘Zen’ style certainly helps convince me that they are more interesting and informative. Yet the concern has been raised that as educators, especially in International Schools, we routinely are working with individuals who’s native language is not English. Does the same concept apply then? Using minimal words/texts on a slide is great for me, a native English speaker, but if I were trying to follow a presentation in a language that I am not a native/fluent speaker of, I’m not so sure it would have the same effect.

I think being aware of your audience and the purpose behind what you are trying to communicate are key factors when utilizing any presentation style. Garr Reynolds, who blogs about professional presentation design, writes about when he’s asked what is a ‘good’ Powerpoint:

So much depends on how the visual is placed within the context of the presentation, and the content and objectives of that particular presentation are of paramount concern. Without a good knowledge of the place and circumstance, and the content and context of a presentation, it is impossible to say this is “appropriate” and that is “inappropriate.”

1483289796_ce342252b5_oGoing back to my confused student above, the class that wanted more information on the Powerpoint was a Modern Language class-where students are not native speakers of the language they are learning/presenting in. The class that wanted a more ‘Zen’ like design was his Humanities class. This goes back to again understanding the purpose and audience for whom the presentation is intended. I feel, too, that there is a personal preference and expertise that comes into play as well. I know for me (who hates doing presentations passionately) I prefer to have a bit more information on a slide to support, inform, and (maybe a bit) distract from looking/listening to me! I also think it is about changing the way we’ve always done things. We’re moving away from the Powerpoints with listed bulleted items (gotta love the bullets, the check marks were my favorite) and moving towards a simpler, more visual presentation style. This change comes with time and an understanding why this style can be a more effective way to communicate. My guess is even people who do a lot of presenting (Jeff and Kim) started out slowly until they developed and expertise of utilizing this visual imagery style of presenting. The rest of us are coming along…maybe a bit more slowly and reluctantly, but we’re coming!

One thought on “Less is more”

  1. What about if we don’t view the presentation as a stand-alone item, but that it comes in conjunction with other resources (like a handout or a website)? I agree that a few choice words are often critical, but I still know that the brain can not read and listen at the same time, so presenting something that is full of words while reading them (or saying something different) is not any more helpful than having a slide with no words.

    I think an important aspect to consider is processing time – giving audience members, in this case second language students time to write down what they understand, discuss in partners, or just listen to others rephrase what is being said – during the presentation might be more important than making sure every word is written down.

    In terms of presenting myself, I also would love to have more notes on the screen because it makes it easier for me, but when I realized that the act of presenting shouldn’t be about making things easier for me, but rather about communicating a message to my audience, I just bit the bullet and figured out how to do it without all my notes visible to my audience. It definitely is a process and it didn’t all happen at once, but I sure could see a difference, both in my presentation style (much more clear and focused) and in audience reception (deeper understanding) after I made the switch. Looking forward to seeing your next Zen-style presentation 🙂

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