Regardless whether you are an engineer or a writer, a professional or a student, a business person or a scientist, you will be expected to communicate effectively with your supervisors, colleagues, clients, and the public. For most, that communication includes at least an occasional formal presentation.
Formal presentations in the workplace usually take one of three forms:
Informational presentations are useful for reporting on research or giving a project update. Persuasive presentations can be used to make pitches to clients or supervisors. Instructional presentations, or “how-to” presentations, are formatted to teach, explain, or train.
In technical presentations, like most other genres of technical communication, good visual information design is essential. Visual aids are useful for increasing audience understanding of both the subject and the organization of a presentation.
Presenters should remember they have an array of options for visual aids from live demonstrations to interactive activities to old fashioned white boards; however, presentation software is the most commonly used option. Among the presentation software choices, PowerPoint is widely available and widely used in the workplace and in educational settings. Other software like Presi or Google Slides are becoming more popular and present may of the same opportunities and challenges that PowerPoint does.
PowerPoint can be a very effective tool for students and professionals if it is used appropriately for the purposes of a technical presentation. Unfortunately, effective use of this tool is not as intuitive as one would think considering its prevalence. To more effectively use PowerPoint often requires unlearning many of the common techniques displayed in the typical college class or even in the workplace.
Pitfalls of PowerPoint
Unfortunately, PowerPoint is controversial. Most students have experienced an ineffective PowerPoint presentation. In fact, a 2015 article on the website The Conversation claims PowerPoint “makes students more stupid and professors more boring” (Sorensen). Although this author and others make good points on the ineffectiveness of PowerPoint, others (Horvath & Lodge, 2015) contend that a tool is only as effective as the person using it. PowerPoint does not make students stupid and professors boring; rather, poor use of this tool makes for ineffective presentations and can lead to laziness in both the audience and the presenter.
One issue with PowerPoint is the preset templates and layouts Microsoft provides. These can guide a novice user to make inappropriate design choices that affect usability. For example, reversed text on a dark background can be challenging for audiences to read. Bullet points do not take advantage of the program’s visual potential. Purely decorative designs can distract from functional visuals and text.
Many of the problems with PowerPoint presentations are the result of a tool that is readily accessible being used by individuals untrained in rhetorical and visual design. Fortunately, students of technical communication can implement a change of strategy and follow a few guidelines to use PowerPoint more effectively.
Rethinking Bullet Points
The key to improving your use of PowerPoint as a presentation tool for technical or professional communication is to rethink the usual layout of presentations you have seen. Most poorly constructed PowerPoints have far too much text, usually in the form of bullet points covering, albeit in shortened form, everything the speaker is going to share. Your purpose should not be a mystery to your audience, but the audience cannot both read and listen to what you are saying at the same time. Rather you should treat your slides as true visual aids that primarily use something other than text to support your points.
Every substantive slide should present a visual that illustrates or supports the point you are making orally rather than summarizing or reiterating that point in text form. In other words, instead of the typical topic and bullet point slide layout, a more effective strategy for PowerPoint presentations slides can be to offer a claim and a visual support in the form of a photo, graph, illustration, chart, etc. (Alley & Neeley, 2005; Markel, 2009).
Sample slide with claim/visual support layout
This claim/support strategy accompanied by various orientation features creates a presentation that is free from visual noise, complimentary to the oral presentation, and easy for the audience to follow. Creating a PowerPoint presentation of this type requires significantly more thought and effort than a traditional summarizing bullet point format, but the payoff is worth the time spent.
Designing a Claim/Support Style Presentation
Although no one size fits all prescription exists for building an effective PowerPoint slide set for a professional or technical presentation, students can use the following steps and stratagems to guide their process.
1. Plan your presentation before making your slide set.
Rather than sitting down at the computer and opening PowerPoint to begin preparing for a presentation, you should start with your topic—the information you need share, the points you need to make, or the process you wish to teach—and determine what types of visual aids will best support your purpose. PowerPoint may not be the right fit for every purpose. If it is the best tool to employ, remember that the slide set is notyour presentation in and of itself but rather a way to visually support your claims and guide your audience through the organization of your presentation.
Follow the same process you would for any piece of academic or professional writing. Research your subject, narrow your scope to fit the constraints of the assignment, analyze your audience, and draft your presentation around your main points. Once you have a strong, organized case to make in support of your purpose, you can begin creating the visuals that will most effectively enhance your claims.