Slide myths ("how many people does it take to do slides?")  

We've all heard of 'lightbulb' jokes, e.g. "How many country-and-western singers does it take to change a  bulb? Five - one to change it and four to sing about the old one.

So here's a twist on that genre: how many people does it take to mock up slides for a talk? Two. One to toil over slides, and one to sit behind and give dumb advice. "No more than three points per slide." "A slide every minute." I've even read that five points are better than four because they look neater(!). Let's look at this pseudo-science.

No more than five numbers per slide. Rubbish: we’ve all seen bad slides with lots of numbers on them, but not all slides with lots of numbers are bad (or, if you prefer: all dogs are animals, but not all animals are dogs - see Venn diagram...). A soccer pundit could show the Premier League on screen (200+ numbers) and deliver a riveting talk to soccer fans. Sometimes 200+ is fine. Sometimes six is too many.

No more than three points per slide. Rubbish: the designer, Robin Williams, has four hugely effective layout principles which create a neat acronym - but spread them over two slides and it loses a lot in translation: Contrast, Repetition, Alignment (slide 1); Proximity (slide 2).

A slide every two minutes. Rubbish: a presenter might yabber on for five minutes while standing in front of a slide that says: "Findings". And it would be fine.

I could carry on, there are more, e.g. "Occasionally do slides that involve delegates". A previous email addressed this one. (In brief, it said: don't confuse the verbs 'to engage' and 'to involve' - we crave to be engaged, but many hate to be involved; we resent being part of a presenter's contrived attempt to pad a talk or disguise a paucity of content.

Unfortunately with pseudo-science, people believe it. Just as drowning people cling to driftwood in the hope it saves their lives, so people cling to pseudo-science in the hope it saves their talks. Driftwood won’t hinder and might help.

Pseudo-science is less benign though. Yes, it helps the few truly terrible presenters, it spares them from their worst atrocities (e.g. showing entire scripts on screen). And yes, it's irrelevant to the few great presenters who ignore ‘rules’ anyway – they know rules can be broken, and they break them.

But the pseudo-science hinders the huge swathe of average presenters. The ‘rules’ dumb down by encouraging us to drip-feed information to delegates in small chunks.

And the internet makes it worse. It propagates these ‘rules’ and so legitimises them. The ‘rules’ become the accepted norm from which it’s difficult to wriggle free. We must wriggle free though. But how? What to do instead?

Maybe we can learn from so-called Ted talks. If you think that, click here for why you should view 'Ted-talk' rules with much scepticism.

Whilst on slides, some PowerPoint horrors: a few years ago, the BBC 'celebrated' PowerPoint's 25th birthday by listing ten PowerPoint horror stories. Click here and enjoy, there are some belters.


PS: don't blame PowerPoint for bad presentations - we don't blame the biro if we write badly.

PPS: how many change-managers does it take to change a light-bulb? One - but the bulb must really want to change.


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