Not to use PowerPoint and the taking of notes during a presentation

Seth Godin writes today an interesting piece about: “Nine steps to PowerPoint magic“. In it, he gives nine tips about how to use PowerPoint to deliver great presentations. I want to talk about 2 of these tips, one I agree with very much, and the second, I am not quite sure about.

The first and most important tip Godin gives is not to use PowerPoint at all. In his words:

Don’t use Powerpoint at all. Most of the time, it’s not necessary. It’s underkill. Powerpoint distracts you from what you really need to do… look people in the eye, tell a story, tell the truth. Do it in your own words, without artifice and with clarity. There are times Powerpoint is helpful, but choose them carefully.

Today, you can see many organizations that have fallen in love with the format of a PowerPoint presentation. There are some organizations in which it is expected (or worse – mandatory) to deliver information using Powerpoint. Many organizations created templates and rules about how to use this instrument which have nothing to do with giving a good presentation. PowerPoint usage has become a standard. Usually a bad one.

The problem with PowerPoint is that it is a tool that does not always fit the circumstances. Talking to an audience differs depending on the circumstances. Giving an inspirational speech about an idea and teaching something is not the same. Talking to 100 people is not the same as talking to 3 people. Not mentioning the differences in subject matter.

I remember when PowerPoint was starting to be used for giving classes in the one of the schools of the Israeli Air force where I was serving (yes, near the end of the last millennium). The commander of the unit was so impressed with intertwining new technology into the curriculum that he ordered every department in the unit to take at least three classes and build a PowerPoint presentation for them. I was talking to the officer in charge of guidance development and he told me this was an erroneous order, because PowerPoint should be used only if it can contribute to the class and improving it. It should not be a default setting.

I think it can be explained very easily if you think about a megaphone. Sometimes, a megaphone helps in making the crowd hear you and understand you. It is a great tool, if you are standing outside and talking to a large crowd. But if you are in a small room trying to talk to a small number of people, it would just seem ridiculous. The same is true with PowerPoint. Sometimes, it just makes you seem ridiculous.

If PowerPoint can contribute to your message or there is something visual you need to show your audience, use it, other wise you should think twice about using it. If you chose to use it, think carefully how to do it. PowerPoint can be used in different manners not only in the standard format we a used to seeing. For example, see here for using PowerPoint for presentations in small groups.

In the last weeks I have seen two great presentations that did not use PowerPoint at all. They did not need it. One is Malcolm Gladwell’s speech “Genius: 2012“. The second is Sir Ken Robinson’s speech “Do schools kill creativity?

The second tip Godin talks about deals with note taking by the audience:

Too breathtaking to take notes. If people are liveblogging, twittering or writing down what you’re saying, I wonder if your presentation is everything it could be. After all, you could have saved everyone the trouble and just blogged it/note-taken it for them, right? We’ve been trained since youth to replace paying attention with taking notes. That’s a shame. Your actions should demand attention (hint: bullets demand note-taking. The minute you put bullets on the screen, you are announcing, “write this down, but don’t really pay attention now.”) People don’t take notes when they go to the opera.

Not that I have a problem with it, but I think Godin sets the bar a little high this time.

First, even if you are the best presenter in the world and have the most compelling message, there will still be some fluctuations in your presentation. And it is Ok that people write down things while during these fluctuations. Most people can write an idea down and continue to listen at the same time.

Second, Godin claims that a presentation should not be longer than 10 minutes. I am not sure that is always possible. But even in a 10 minutes presentation, the important idea is much shorter and usually repeats it self a number of times, because we all know the importance of repeation in presentations. The second time the same idea is presented – don’t you want your audience to write it down.

Third, I know that for me personally, when I feel like I have something to write down, it means the presentation is interesting and contributes to me. In the two aforementioned presentations I watched, I felt the urge to write some of the ideas down for later use during the speech.

Fourth, and more importantly, as Godin himself says – “We’ve been trained since youth to replace paying attention with taking notes. That’s a shame” – Maybe it is a shame. But that is the way people work – when you are presenting you should take that into notice. The all point of presenting is to create value for the listeners. I prefer they write own my main idea and remember it than having their full attention all the time and than having them forget my message afterwards because for some people the opposite of forgetting is writing.


27 Responses to “Not to use PowerPoint and the taking of notes during a presentation”

  1. Lisa Braithwaite Says:

    Elad, I agree with you on the point about taking notes (wanted to pick my battles on my blog, so skipped over this one!).

    I am a note-taker. I actually learn better when I’m writing notes. I’m not an auditory learner, so to just listen to someone speak isn’t good enough for me, and I WILL forget everything. To write down notes reinforces the words visually and helps me to remember.

    If people take notes during my talk, or don’t take notes, who am I to say what should or shouldn’t work for them?

  2. sherfelad Says:

    Thanks Lisa.
    I am very happy you took the time to leave a reply.
    I guess each of us writes about what he feels is most important.
    In Hebrew we have a saying that I will distort a little for our purpose: “there isn’t one truth in presentations”.
    I downloaded your E-book toady and I am anxiously waiting to read it!

    Have fun!


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