Sunday, September 06, 2015

PowerPoint: A Communication Curse?


I do a lot of public speaking, and like a lot of speakers, I use PowerPoint slides and want the audience to remember what I say about those slides. I, like probably most in an audience, have been in the audience where speakers relied on PowerPoint, and as listeners we often discover that we don't remember much of what was shown.
            Slide presentations are ubiquitous, in education, government, and industry. Their misuse has been blamed for many of the problems in education and for some bad policy thinking and decisions in government (security briefings) and the military (Iraq war decisions). Critics have complained that PowerPoints tend to be relentlessly sequential and nested, reflect sound-bite thinking, present a pitch rather than encouraging reasoning, and have more style than substance (http://www.edwardtufte.com).
A recent study tested the question of how PowerPoint affects recall of the information presented. This question was prompted by several studies the authors cited showing that in school settings, PowerPoint actually interferes with learning. As a partial replication attempt, this latest study evaluated the remembering in a non-school environment, namely religious sermons.
The subjects were regular members of a church attending PowerPoint-based regular sermons at their church. Their average age was 54 and they had been members of that church on average for 16 years. Members listened to sermons under several PowerPoint conditions and were tested for recall by an on-line multiple-choice survey four days after each sermon. Each survey had 12 questions that covered content, concepts, and general points of the sermon.
The first hypothesis tested was that memory of the sermon content would be better when the preacher’s slides included images in addition to words than with images only or words only. Slightly more concepts were remembered from slides that had words and pictures than slides that only had pictures. Otherwise, there were no differences.
The second hypothesis tested was that PowerPoint with graphics would be no more effectively remembered than sermons that did not use PowerPoint. Results indicated that it didn’t matter much for recall whether slides had words only, pictures only, or both. Most importantly, no differences could be detected between recall of sermons where slides were used and where no slides were used.
No details were provided on how wordy the slides were (key words are better than long phrases and sentences) nor on how effectively the graphics reinforced the ideas (they could have been a distraction).
I agree with the authors’ conclusion that “PowerPoint has the advantage of structuring and sequencing ideas in a presentation but that “it cannot overcome the need for clarity of thought, rhetorical focus, and effective communication skills.”
Why is it hard to remember content in PowerPoint presentations? The authors did not delve into the reasons for the ineffectiveness of PowerPoint. Some of the problems in their study might be unique to a worship service environment. But let me suggest some possibilities that could exist in any presentation environment. Many possibilities exist, but of course they vary with the speaker and how the slides are constructed and used.
In the first category of problems, we can cite the slides themselves:
·         Poor slides. Too many speakers put too much material on a given slide, use too many words on each slide, and have slides that are either boring or distracting to look at.
·         Too many slides. Many PowerPoints are an information dump, overwhelming the audience with too many facts and ideas. To finish the presentation on time, the speaker may rush through the slides, compounding the cognitive overload problem.
·         Poor use of graphics. Slides may lack graphics all together or have graphics that are distracting because they do not reinforce the ideas conveyed on the slide.

In the second category of problems, we can cite how the speaker uses the slides:

·         Reading the slides. The communication should come from the speaker, which does not happen when the speaker is reading text on slides that the audience is already reading (and probably finished long before the speaker finishes).
·         Failure to interact with the audience. Audiences are passive by nature. Optimal memory requires active engagement. Slides don’t stimulate engagement the way speakers can and should. PowerPoint lectures are speaker oriented, whereas effective learning and remembering requires content and audience orientation.

I recognized these problems long ago from watching professors and in my own college lecturing experiences. This led me to publish a paper on how to make PowerPoint presentations more memorable. Even when well done, there are limits to what can be achieved with slides.
Power Point teaching can trap teachers into bad teaching. The basic problem is that such presentations promote passive listening, rather than active learner engagement.
Slide shows should engage and motivate. Too often, they actually compete with learning. Slides should provide useful animations and graphics. But slide shows may not be the best way to disseminate basic information. Basic information is best conveyed in ways where the audience, not a presenter or teacher, can control the pace. That is why books, journals, videos, and the Web are preferable for disseminating information.
A typical instructional slide show presents a continuous long series of information-dense slides without pausing for reflection, engagement, and interaction. The teacher drones on, and slide images merge into a forgettable blur. Full engagement with the content in a slide show won’t occur unless the presenter builds in frequent discussion, questions, problems, and tasks.

Sources:

Buhko, A. A., Buchko, K. Jl., and Meyer, J. M. 2015. Is there power in PowerPoint? A field test of the efficacy of PowerPoint on memory and recall of religious sermons. Computers in Human Behavior. 28, 688-695.

Klemm, W. R. 2007. Computer slide shows: a trap for bad teaching.  College Teaching. 55(3), 121-124.

Dr. Klemm's books include Mental Biology, Memory Power 101,
 and Better Grades, Less Effort

2 comments:

  1. I agree, I wouldn’t consider it a best practice.

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  2. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. Good Luck!

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