The first rule of listener-friendly PowerPoint use: please don't tell me everything you know.
There's been a lot already on the Web by professional communicators about the use and misuse of PowerPoint (links at the end). The main point is that cluttered slides with lots of images and lots of words inhibit learning.
Now we have a Harvard scientist telling us what we already knew: if you put less in your PowerPoint presentation, your audience will remember more. Stephen M. Kosslyn, psychology professor at Harvard University, explains how to apply cognitive science to your slides, emphasizing visual depictions of information and basic rules of simplicity (read more here).
Before coming to this school, I worked in a public sector agency where we regularly gave briefings to foreign visitors. The briefings were prepared by the public relations team and were designed out of a fear of omission (the darker side of the obsession to impress). Each year the briefing grew longer and more complicated as more projects and other accomplishments demanded inclusion in the presentation.
By the time I left that job, the briefing (we should have called it an elongating) took more than two hours and had hundreds of narcotic slides, many of them full of large numbers, others with nearly a hundred words in miniscule, illegible type. At the end we had aides ready with plenty of Turkish coffee to revive the victims, but it was too late. When the presenter would ask for questions, there was usually just dazed silence, followed by acute memory loss (what did slide #87 say again?).
The fear of omission is cultivated early. When students are required to give a presentation or write a research paper, they feel pressure to demonstrate how much they know about the topic. This feeds the mistaken logic that says that a fact not presented is a fact not known. The purpose of the presentation is focused on the presenter and a motivation to impress or to avoid embarrassment. On the other hand, a well designed presentation focuses on the listener and how she can be enlightened or persuaded. A presentation that is just for the presenter is a waste of everybody's time.
We let students show off their ability to embed animations and create whizbang slide transitions, when we should be teaching them how to communicate. We need to shift the emphasis from displaying information to enabling learning, with an emphasis that is less about what goes on the screen and more about what goes into --and stays in-- the listener's brain.
Here are some more resources for more effective presentations:
photo by zen