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Aim for the Rectangle Outside the Box

by David Underwood

David Underwood is an academic technology consultant for the University of Colorado Boulder.

My first job after leaving art school back in the eighties was with the art department at a local television station, where I shared an office with three other designers. We produced varied work, from airbrushed portraits of the on-air talent to "personal checks" the size of beach towels for the station's public donations to local charities.

One routine task has stuck with me, and I think of it often when working with students today. Our art department made thousands of "super-cards" — a rough, quickly rendered graphic mounted on 11x14-inch illustration board, captured on video, and superimposed above the news anchor's left shoulder — to highlight whatever story was being read during the evening's broadcast. Big pileup in Larimer County? Our super-card might show a dented fender or a highway patrolman in profile. A rash of holdups on the city's North Side? We might knock out something as predictable as a pistol or a bag of cash.

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The super-card obviously predated the arrival of digital graphics in broadcast television. In spite of its primitive form, though, the card's use was sophisticated and is worth revisiting when discussing delivery of any presentation to a live audience. Critically, we heeded two cardinal rules in broadcast: Don't Compete with the Talking Heads and Don't Confuse the Audience.

Respecting the Talent

How different, really, is a TV anchor delivering the day's news from a business major giving an in-class presentation? I'd say, not very. Both are physically present to connect with and engage the audience. When we watch a well-delivered newscast, there's simply no question who controls the story. A strong presentation is no different. A student showing her work should own the room, and her point-of-view and expertise should command the audience's total attention. Poorly designed, cryptic, or unnecessarily dense or busy slides will make this difficult. That's where the super-card strategy comes in: How do we concisely illustrate the content without upstaging the talent?

The goal of visual support in presenting materials is to anchor or summarize what doesn't easily or efficiently flow through text. Unless slides are evidentiary in nature, serving as artifacts for review and reflection, they should stay well clear of the presenter's relationship with the audience… like super-cards.

This is tough to get across to students. Too many student presentations leave me asking myself, What's the point? Maybe students most often think of PowerPoint (or other presentation tools) as nothing more than a way to create a projected and brightly colored mirror of their "script," and thus come to rely on PowerPoint's features for all the wrong reasons. During critiques I explain the thinking behind super-cards and beg them not to simply read their presentations aloud to their classmates.

Speaking in Tongues

Have you attended a talk in which you saw long bulleted lists that said things like "More research needed" or "Inconclusive results targeted"? To me, these fragments of thoughts are much like an unfinished super-card. There's enough information to be confusing and, by extension, distracting, but not enough to digest and move on. This happens, I'm certain, because the presenter was "thinking in PowerPoint" when writing up the slides.

You may have heard rules about upper limits on the number of slides you should have in your stack. They're only rules. Breaking the list on the left in the figure below into seven separate, easy-to-grasp slides will keep your talk moving and, better still, will allow your audience to fully concentrate on the most important person in the room — you.

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An audience switching attention between the speaker and nonsensical or stubborn slides is a problem. As the presenter moves on to the next topic, many attendees are still trying to understand the topic just covered or trying to find their place in a 20-line list. This needless competition between the author and his or her own work can — and should — be avoided.

Why Johnny Can't Present

Every semester I help dozens of students storyboard their presentations. I try to get them to see their work through the eyes of their audience and to challenge themselves by making "wrong" assumptions about what they think they're saying. That's a surprisingly difficult thing to do, but I marvel that anyone would give a major presentation without trying this first.

PowerPoint is a rectangle. That's it. I often wish, when helping a student, that I could scrub away the prevailing presentation orthodoxies in which they've been schooled and get them back to seeing that basic, lovely rectangle. We don't have to speak in bullets. We don't need clip art — or any art, for that matter — for each slide in a presentation. We can use as many slides as we want. We can even entertain.

Working a Tough Room

Have you been to a talk in which the presentation was just plain lazy? What was your initial reaction? Did you feel important or welcome? Could you give full credibility to the speaker? Eventually, I mean?

I tell students that if they come to a presentation unprepared, with ugly or sloppily conceived slides, they enter the situation in deficit. They'll have to work hard just to get back to baseline, no matter how stellar their scholarship has been. It might seem a little unfair, but the world is becoming an increasingly sophisticated place, and presenting oneself well and professionally is a fundamental part of any presentation.

It's a big world out there, and we should communicate accordingly. If I were helping a student with a presentation on blues legend Muddy Waters, for example, I'd recommend Rolling Stone or album covers for inspiration, not yet another PowerPoint tutorial. His slides may very well "totally rock" as a result.

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Average no longer cuts it. And that's why, if I'm helping a student prepare a pitch for a business class, for instance, I send her anywhere other than to a PowerPoint help page for guidance and inspiration. I'll have her Google images of annual reports, propaganda posters, even calendars and magazine layouts, as places to find great design and writing ideas. I want more than anything for her to break the presentation spell and dress her hard work in the zippy clothing it deserves.

And when she takes the podium and the crowd settles down, I want her to lean forward, smile, and own that room.

© 2014 David Underwood. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review blog entry is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 license.

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I could not agree more that "Maybe students most often think of PowerPoint (or other presentation tools) as nothing more than a way to create a projected and brightly colored mirror of their "script." Mr. Underwood has presented some great creative ideas on creating truly engaging Ppt. slides.