June 9, 2008

“That needs to be moved out of the room – we’re having a conference in here!”

By pbconrad

I'm still not sure how it worked out this way.  Was it good timing?  Good luck?  Not that it really matters any more – those days are probably gone forever.  Still, I'm glad I made it.  I'm not sure I'd be the same if things had been different. 


Yes, dear reader, it's true – I made it all the way through college without seeing more than a handful of lectures delivered via PowerPoint.  I don't know if that seems strange to you.  Looking at the fact that well over 90% of the lectures I have seen in medical and graduate school have been PowerPoint slideshows, it frankly seems a little strange to me.  How did I avoid these terrible things for so long?


It's not like I was in college all that long ago (1999-2003), either.  Back then (I'll tell my kids), lectures came in three basic forms: the basic “lecture,”  in which someone stood in the front of the room and just talked about stuff; the  “chalk talk,” in which the speaker utilized a chalkboard to draw diagrams, equations, write key points, that sort of thing; and “overheads,” which were plastic sheets (either pre-printed or written on in real time) placed on a projector and displayed on a screen.  I guess I also saw a few lectures delivered via actual slides, using a slide projector.  We considered that very “old school” (pun only sort of intended).


It's not like I went to some tiny school out in the stix, either.  My beloved Alma Mater, Indiana University, is consistently rated one of the most “wired” campuses in the country (I was there during the golden age of Napster!  But that's probably a story for another time...).  We had projectors and computers in our classrooms; people just chose not to use them.


“But Peter,” you're probably saying (how do you know my name, by the way?  That's creepy), “as informative and fascinating as this little story has been so far, I don't really see the point.  PowerPoint is a fantastic presentation tool!  Aren't you glad you get to experience it now?”


No.  PowerPoint is probably the worst thing to happen to education since...I don't know, something really bad, like having to wrestle in middle school gym class.  Now, when I say this to people (the thing about hating PowerPoint, not the part about wrestling), they always say the same thing in reply, “But PowerPoint makes preparing lectures so much easier!”  And therein lies the problem.  PowerPoint is a great tool for presenters, not for audiences.  Specifically, as my undergrad research mentor used to say, “PowerPoint is a great tool for [presenters] with no personality.”  It's ridiculously easy to put together a passable PowerPoint slideshow.  Once you make your slideshow, you can then use it for several lectures before you have to whip up a new one!  And it's so reassuring to have everything you're going to say listed out in little bullet points you can read to your audience!  And Remember! four bullets with four words each!  No more!  And use lots of clip art! 


I have seen some fantastic PowerPoint-based lectures.  Some people use the multimedia capabilities to great effect.  Others use the slides solely for displaying images while delivering traditional “walk and talk” lectures.  However, for every effective PowerPoint slideshow I've seen, I've seen several dozen that are beyond awful.  My “favorite” was a lecture I sat through in medical school that consisted of 300 slides (for a one hour talk) titled “Radiology Residents Conference: January 5, 1996.  It was neither January 5, nor was it 1996, and we were decidedly not Radiology residents.  The presenter hit “next slide” until she came to something that looked appropriate for a lecture to a group of medical students, read the bullets, rambled off a few additional remarks, and sped on to the next image that looked promising.  Ugh.  Things aren't usually that bad, but they're not usually that much better, either. 


The master of information design, Edward Tufte, has a wonderful essay addressing the problems with PowerPoint presentations (see http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/powerpoint or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Tufte).  I won't relist his complaints here (they're neatly summarized in the wikipedia article). Instead, I'll add that PowerPoint makes speakers lazy, because people don't like to update their presentations once they are completed; and PowerPoint draws attention away from the gestures and “presence” of an engaging speaker.  Most importantly, PowePoint presentation makes it difficult for a speaker to tailor his presentations to the audience.  The best speakers linger over points that the audience does not understand or seems more interested in and quickly moves through information that the audience is already familiar with or finds of less interest.  This is hard to do in PowerPoint – the slides have all been made already, you can't change them or rearrange them in real time (flipping between them out of order never works very well).


This is all by way of saying that we need to bring back the chalk talk!  Students, for your next presentation, walk in, turn off the computer, and lecture with handouts and a chalk board!  I had a friend who did this in our seminar class and people were absolutely shocked! He actually had to wheel in a chalkboard from another building, as the lecture hall didn't have one (it had a dry erase board, but that is sub-optimal.  The markers are always dried out and the boards are always covered in unerasable marks from previous presentations.  If you want color, use colored chalk!)  Initial resistance (people honestly were a little taken aback) gave way to every subsequent speaker using the chalkboard, generally in combination with figures from papers displayed via PowerPoint.  We've quickly found that some things are best discussed via the chalkboard – diagrams, equations, sketches of graphs – while others work best on the computer projector – mainly high resolution structural images, actual charts and graphs, that sort of thing.  Preparing such a multiformat talk takes a little additional work, but for the audience, it makes an enormous difference.   


Check out Edward Tufte's essay (it's cheap and it's worth having a copy – it's really good), think back to the last really effective PowerPoint presentation you saw (this may be hard), and think about changing things up for your next talk.  Don't use PowerPoint just because it's convenient – use it only if it somehow makes things easier to understand.  Try making some handouts with key information or nice copies of important figures.  Try using the chalkboard.  I bet you'll give a better talk.


This little story ends on a funny note.  We've kept the chalkboard in the seminar course room.  However, after next week, we have to take it back where it came from.  The title of this essay refers to the official request we received.  I will not be attending that conference.


Peter Conrad is an MD/PhD student currently in Mayo Graduate School.  He will introduce himself in a future entry, as he got a little carried away talking about chalkboards in this entry.  His interests include Psychiatry, Receptor Biology, and antiquated presentation tools.  He does not spend all his time railing against PowerPoint.  Honest.  Sometime he talks about interesting stuff too.


If you make great PowerPoints, he probably wasn't talking about you.  You're good people.     







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