Thursday, January 30, 2020

Neil DeGrasse Tyson Quote on Being an Educator

Richard Dawkins has a great quote from Neil DeGrasse Tyson that has an important insight into being a great educator. The context is that Dawkins has just given a critical presentation based upon impeccable facts. DeGrasse Tyson was concerned about the style of the presentation, so he offered the following constructive criticism.
Being an educator is not only getting the truth right, but there's got to be an act of persuasion in there as well. Persuasion isn't always 'Here's the facts, you are either an idiot or you're not.' It's 'Here's the facts, and here is a sensitivity to your state of mind.' And it's the facts plus the sensitivity, when convolved together, creates impact.  p. 262
This combination of facts plus audience sensitivity is an excellent approach to take for every presentation.

Source: Dawkins, R. (2015). A brief candle in the dark: My life in science. Harper Collins, New York

The Return of the PowerPoint Critics

Geoffrey James followed up his recent criticism of PowerPoint with another post entitled PowerPoint Has Its Defenders, But They're Wrong. In brief, his blog readers argue in favor of PowerPoint use, with some making arguments that are similar to mine. He shoots down these pro-PowerPoint arguments to maintain his position that PowerPoint has no redeeming qualities.

This statement caught my eye:
My most recent column explained that PowerPoint is a highly ineffective tool, because the premise on which it's based--that displaying words and images while you're talking improves audience retention--is scientifically invalid.
This statement is only half true.

The true part is that displaying words while the reader is talking can be problematic. The visual words and the spoken words must both be processed in the same brain area at the same time. The simultaneous processing of two information streams can't occur, so the audience must choose to focus on either the displayed words or the spoken words. This is a divided attention problem.

The false part is the suggestion that PowerPoint images are also harmful. Some scientific evidence is exactly the opposite. Dual-coding theory suggests that words (spoken for presentations) and images can combine in a complementary way to support each other and improve learning. Some decorative images might be a distraction, but it is an overstatement to think that all images are harmful to comprehension.

Here's a quick thought experiment. A friend of yours has recently traveled to some exotic location on a vacation trip. They're telling you now, in some detail, about their trip. Would you prefer to hear a verbal-only description of the trip or a verbal description plus selected pictures? The latter option would surely be more interesting and informative. In a similar manner, carefully chosen images can be helpful to presenters.

So don't throw PowerPoint into the garbage can. A well-constructed PowerPoint presentation can offer valuable support to the message that you're trying to convey. 

Friday, January 24, 2020

A rebuttal to "It's 2020. Why Are You Still Using PowerPoint?" and similar PowerPoint critics

Geoffrey James recently published opinion articles proposing that PowerPoint use should be rejected. In It's 2020. Why Are You Still Using PowerPoint? he argues that PowerPoint is ineffective and hated by everyone. In the article Jeff Bezos, Mark Cuban, and Tony Robbins Don't PowerPoint. They Do This Instead he recommends presentation approaches that deliberately avoid PowerPoint. This negative opinion of PowerPoint is similar to numerous critics such as Edward Tufte and many others.

The issues raised by PowerPoint critics should always be seriously considered. These are very real problems. James is correct in saying that media comparisons studies (i.e., PowerPoint vs. chalkboards and other technologies) done by educators and cognitive psychologists don't show much of a learning boost from PowerPoint (see my book for a thorough review). In addition, it is well-known (to cognitive psychologists anyway) that the text on a slide can compete with the words that the presenter is speaking, thereby creating a divided attention problem. What is more important to the audience, the text on the slide or the words the speaker is saying? This competition between displayed text and spoken words can detract from a speaker's message.

Although important points are raised, I disagree with this excessively negative view of PowerPoint. Here are a couple of counterpoints to consider.

There is an extensive literature in educational psychology showing that graphic images can foster the understanding of complex topics. Dual coding theories suggest that the combination of words plus instructional images can have a synergistic effect that promote learning. This is particularly true in the STEM areas, where understanding topics like "How does the heart work?" require words like key terms plus a mental visualization of the processes. There is still research work to be done in this area. It's not fully understood why graphic images are sometimes helpful for learning but sometimes are ineffective. Similarly, it's not well understood why some images promote audience interest while others may be distractions that harm a presentation.

A second point to consider is that PowerPoint is a technology. When bad presentations occur, it's the presenter who should be blamed, not the technology. Most people receive little to no training in how to give presentations. Their only training may have been a speech class in high school or college. The average person rarely gives presentations, so they have few opportunities to improve their presentation skills. Finally, most people are anxious or even terrified of speaking in public. For these people reading text off a PowerPoint slide is the easiest way through a situation that they dread and are poorly prepared to perform.

An analogy is helpful for illustrating this point. Let's imagine an artist who spends a lot of money to get the best possible paints, brushes, studio space, and other equipment. However, this artist has no training, rarely paints, and didn't have much artistic talent to begin with. They maybe even dread the painting process! The end result will be mediocre to poor art. It would be a logical error to blame the brushes and other equipment for this artistic failure. The person is at fault here. This judgment seems reasonable for art, but when it comes to presentations somehow the technology receives most of the blame rather than the presenter. (It's important to note that this analogy isn't really mine. The artist and musician David Byrne has made a similar comparison between art and PowerPoint presentations.)

In closing, I think Geoffrey James and similar critics are being excessively negative. PowerPoint adds value to a presentation when it is carefully designed to support a speaker's message. Furthermore, the proposed solutions like "go entirely slide-less" are unrealistic for the average presenter. It would be more helpful to follow-up known PowerPoint presentation problems with constructive solutions. What we really need is more training in how to give a good presentation and a better understanding of how PowerPoint works (or doesn't work) for an audience rather than simple suggestions to completely drop the use of PowerPoint. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

PowerPoint for General Interest Presentations: Images, Not Words

Last week, I saw a presentation on vegetable gardening given at a local Kiwanis club meeting. The presenter's interest in growing vegetables was inspired by gardens seen during mission trips abroad as well as the health benefits of eating more vegetables. He showed his raised bed system with automated watering and other nice features. It was an inspirational presentation. I left wanting plant some veggies!

During PowerPoint presentations I often have two tracks of thought. One track is about the presentation content. The other track is a process thought: What is working (or not working) about this presentation?

This presentation clearly worked well in part because the presenter was intelligent, well-informed, and very passionate about the subject. Another important aspect though was the PowerPoint presentation. The presentation had very few words. The PowerPoint content was mostly a picture slide show of gardens, with healthy vegetable plants and happy gardeners. The images supported the presentation content and helped to illustrate key points. The slides promoted audience engagement largely because of the heavy use of educational images rather than text or bullet points.

The take-home PowerPoint thought is that images (not text) are the most engaging for a non-technical, non-academic kind of presentation.

Friday, January 10, 2020

PowerPoint design: Background images that cause sensory failures

A student who recently gave a PowerPoint presentation in my class was aiming for an industrial-type appearance in his slides. The background was sliver with black holes. The image looked like a kitchen colander, but flat. The font was small and black.

The overall appearance was similar to this:

This slide design fails on a sensory level. The background image has grey and black that is similar to the font, leading to a low degree of contrast between the text and the background. The image is very detailed, which produces a noisy feeling. Finally, the text is simply too small to be seen from a distance.

An important design principle for sensory success is to have a high degree of contrast between the foreground (text) and the background. Our visual system works by detecting the degree of difference. Thus, designs that decrease contrast can be difficult to read or understand.

Credit: The background image was based upon a free image from the following source.

Hello world!

Hello world!

This is my new blog. The main topic will be PowerPoint presentations, especially for educational purposes. This is a follow-up to my book: Slides for Students. Some of the ideas presented here may find their way into future editions of Slides for Students or possibly other publications.

Another interest is perception and how it relates to everyday life. I may also post about homebrewing once in a while.

Thanks for joining me.