How To Use PowerPoint Without Sucking

How To Use PowerPoint Without Sucking

Imagine seeing a young student attempt to twist in a screw using a hammer. I think we can all agree that angrily grabbing the hammer from the student and throwing it away would be a mistake. A more constructive response would to be to simply clarify the true purpose of a hammer. The same principle applies to the much-maligned PowerPoint.

A recent article calling for blanket removal of PowerPoint from education made the same mistake as banning the hammer: they erroneously blame the tool for mistakes made by the user.

PowerPoint is a tool built for a very specific purpose: to display visual aids meant to complement verbally delivered content. Somewhere along the line, however, this purpose was forgotten and the tool was co-opted to achieve ends it was simply never meant to address.

So rather than outright abolishing PowerPoint, here’s a short refresher on how PowerPoint should be used.

PowerPoint faux pas

Using slides as speaker notes

Many people use PowerPoint as a substitute for speaker notes – filling each slide with text, which they then proceed to read aloud to the audience. The practice of using slides to guide the speaker rather than to aid the learner is not only tedious and redundant, but also has been shown to diminish audience engagement and learning.

Including too many words

A quick experiment: try to listen to the TV news or talk-back radio while you read this article. Don’t be surprised if you can’t pay attention to both at the same time – it turns out, silent reading requires the same brain regions as listening to someone speak aloud.

This means that when a PowerPoint presentation contains too many words, the audience must choose whether to read the slides or listen to the speaker. They cannot do both simultaneously. Even when slides contain the same words as those being spoken, comprehension and memory decrease when both are presented simultaneously.

Suddenly presenting dense graphs and/or tables

Graphs and tables compactly present data that, otherwise, might take many pages to outline and explain. As such, they take time and a great deal of mental effort to interpret. This means that if a complex graph or table suddenly appears on a PowerPoint slide, the audience must choose whether to decipher the figure or listen to the speaker: they can’t do both.

Lots of words and slides = disengaged audience (Chris Pirillo/Flickr)

How to use PowerPoint

Include relevant images

It is not an accident that PowerPoint was developed as an image-presentation tool. Psychological and educational research has long demonstrated that including relevant images during an oral talk enhances audience engagement and improves learning.

Reveal graphs and/or tables

With PowerPoint, it is a trivial matter to segment graphs/tables into digestible bits and present each in a piecemeal format. For instance, a presenter can first display the empty axes of a graph, then overlay the internal grid, then build up each experimental condition.

In this way, the speaker can walk the audience through each component of a figure. In turn, this ensures the audience can listen to the speech as the complex visual image builds to completion.

Spatial predictability

Each time the mouse button is pressed to advance a presentation, the audience must devote attention to and decipher each new slide. This means they may tune out and no longer hear the speaker as they orient themselves to the newly presented material.

If each slide is spatially and visually organised in the same way (images, titles and/or references located in the same position on each slide, perhaps with an explicit box), audience members will covertly learn the layout, increasing audience attention and learning.

Putting it all together

There are very good reasons why the presentations delivered by the late Steve Jobs became so revered. Aside from his personal charisma and gravitas, Jobs and his team were masters of the use of visual aids for emphasis. Slides were used sparingly, had little to no extraneous detail, and were easy for the audience to process.

Slides are visual aids and should be designed with this purpose in mind. Notes, study aids and other supplementary material should be produced separately, using tools that have been designed for those purposes.

Don’t ban the hammer — simply use it for what it was meant for.

The ConversationJared Cooney Horvath is PhD Student — Neuroscience, Psychology, and Education at University of Melbourne.

Jason M Lodge is Research Fellow, Science of Learning Research Centre & Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education at University of Melbourne.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


  • My preference is to make a large poster in indesign, upload it to prezi, and then map the slides moving across the poster. Much better than powerpoint slides.

    • It’s pretty much the same thing in the end really, which is just showing visual information on slides. Doesn’t really matter what program you use to do it or even if you do it on overhead transparencies, the same advantages and pitfalls apply to all of them. I don’t really understand why so many people have a hard time with Powerpoint, since that’s all it is – a visualisation tool.

      • I guess I’m just better at keeping a consistent tidy poster than I am a series of slides. Probably care of doing a design degree, where most submissions are large posters.

  • I’ve seen people trying to fake relational databases with Word tables. The propensity of people to misuse tools is infinite.

    • Eugh. I constantly battle with people at work listing values in Excel, and then using a calculator to add the values up, then writing the total at the bottom of the Excel list…

      • Or adding the content of one document to another by making one into a PDF and then either embedding it or putting in screen shots of the pages. When this doesn’t work and they ask me “where did I go wrong” I have to bite my tongue very firmly…

  • I always remember that I’m sharing the platform with my slides, as if they are a co-presenter, at times there to backup me and my material, and vice versa. This is important to be aware of, given people focus on one thing at a time (that’s what focus is).

  • I’m relatively new at my company, their method is to just fill the slides up with text and then use the slides as a prompt. Drives me insane!

    When I suggest that if there is that much text, just make a pdf and hand it out, I get looked at like the odd person. When I suggest that all those words could be shortened to 3 main categories and then just talk to the categories, im the odd person :/

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