Science - September 10, 2015

PowerPoint exposes academic insecurity

Roelof Kleis

Why are academic PowerPoint presentations often so deadly dull and boring? Because of performance anxiety and poor skills, says researcher Brigitte Hertz. Academics too often use PowerPoint for their own benefit rather than for their audience.

You only have to walk into a conference or symposium and you’ll fi nd them: poor PowerPoint presentations. Scientists absorbed in their overfull slides and oblivious to their audience. Literally, since they are looking at the screen the whole time. And the whole thing is presented in barely comprehensible English. No doubt it is good science, but it is presented dreadfully. Why is this? Could it be the fault of PowerPoint? Brigitte Hertz has a very decided answer to that question, and expanded on it in her PhD thesis Spotlight on the Presenter, which she defended yesterday.

Hertz’s answer to the question is a resounding no. The programme itself cannot be blamed for all those poor presentations. It’s a question of the way scientists use PowerPoint. ‘The main mistake people make is to use it primarily for themselves and not for their audience,’ explains Hertz. ‘They use PowerPoint to help them remember the structure of their presentation and the words they want to use. And that is not a good idea. If you want to give a presentation, your audience should be your starting point. How do you help the audience? How do make sure you keep their attention, and that they follow what you are saying and preferably remember it too? Those are the three things you should do your best to achieve as a presenter. It is a sign of a professional attitude to put your audience first and not yourself.’

Herts spent years studying the use of Power- Point by researchers at academic conferences. Initially she asked for the Powerpoints from numerous conferences and studied the number of slides used and the number of words and images per slide. ‘But that data turned out to be too static. The real point is what the presenters do with the slides. A presentation is a performance. The point is to get a compete picture of the slides and the behaviour of the presenter.’ So she then filmed scientists too, studied their behaviour during their presentation and looked at the relations between that behaviour and the kinds of slides used. Painstaking work.

The results of the various studies back up the oft-heard complaints about talks using PowerPoint. Yes, the average slide contains too many words. Social scientists lead the fi eld with as many as 50 words per slide, twice as many as PowerPoint gurus advise. And yes, too few images are used. You’ll be lucky of there is one image every three slides (the speaker is probably a linguist). And yes again, presenters constantly turn towards their own slides: on average three times a minute. A lot more often when they use dynamic slides, where new elements continually ‘fl y in’. What is more, few of them announce or introduce their slides. All this not only makes for dull presentations but also for ineffective knowledge transfer.

But this is not PowerPoint’s fault, asserts Hertz. It is down to the scientist’s lack of skill. ‘PowerPoint brings an extra variable onto the scene, and you have to do something with it. You have to direct the audience’s attention but academics do not learn how to approach this rhetorically. I am quite shocked by that, really. There are loads of guides to PowerPoint but no one reads them.’ Hertz calls PowerPoint a double- edged sword. ‘Everybody uses the programme because it is so user-friendly. You can produce professional-looking slides in no time. That is the positive side. The negative side is that you take on quite a challenge in terms of the presentation skills and knowledge about audience responses that you actually need. People too easily assume they can do it. But they are using a tool without knowing what effect it has on the audience.

PowerPoint is actually a tool suited to skilled and experienced presenters, in Hertz’s view. But she wouldn’t go so far as to forbid it for beginners. ‘I would rather take a gentler approach. I don’t want to send people onto the podium with their knees knocking. I don’t want to deny them the support of PowerPoint.’ Because many people really need that bit of support, as was clear from Hertz’s many interviews with academics. PowerPoint owes much of its popularity to the fact that it provides a crutch for people with a fear of public speaking. But that is precisely the pitfall too, shows Hertz’s study, because the greater the fear of speaking, the fuller the slides. In the worst case they are just chunks of text which are simply read aloud.

Some people use PowerPoint for their own benefit and not for their audience

The intriguing thing about all this is that academics have very clear ideas about what makes a good presentation. Hertz: ‘If I ask about that, the same features always come out. The speaker should be relaxed, and have vision and a sense of humour. Then I ask, do you put that into your own presentation? No, that is much too scary because so-and-so is in the audience, and people might ask questions, and I want to come across as serious. There is a big contrast between what people like to hear themselves and what they think they ought to do when they are delivering a presentation themselves.’ Hertz puts this discrepancy down to the fundamental insecurity academics suffer from. ‘Presentation is a stressful thing because of the culture of science. In science you make a claim and it stands until someone else says it’s not true. So every time you present your ideas you are waiting for someone to undermine them. Scientists are brought up to be tremendously critical. They look for the errors. Is the methodology good enough, are the results valid, is the sample representative? Facing that, just try to stay relaxed, let alone funny! Fear of public speaking is a very basic fear.’

So PowerPoint offers an anxious presenter something to hide behind, in a sense. But that does not lead to a really good presentation. To get that, says Hertz, you really have to work on the way you actually present the material. This should be done during university programmes, and preferably even earlier. ‘In America children learn presentation skills from kindergarten on. I think that’s important. It is also increasingly important for scientists so they can spread their ideas effectively. Not just amongst themselves but also to a wider audience. And it is perfectly possible. Fortunately I do also come across scientists who are very good presenters. Whose use of PowerPoint really adds something to the presentation. Who use nice pictures and change them without you noticing. Who don’t even look at the screen.’

Photo: Bram Belloni