June 13, 2014

Bullet-proof: Rethinking PowerPoint Presentations

by Sharon Martin, PharmD, PGY-1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, University of Maryland Medical Center

Learners of my generation have seen the transformation from a classroom full of students focused on the chalkboard/whiteboard to one full of laptop computers with all eyes on the instructor’s PowerPoint slideshow. As a recent graduate, I witnessed this transition and found slideshow lectures often “death by PowerPoint.” PowerPoint-based lectures were the norm in most of my pharmacy school courses.  Students expected every bit of information they needed to know to be written directly on the slides.  But many educators feel that learners lose the big picture when focusing on these small details.  PowerPoint presentations can be impersonal and discourage active student participation.1 Thus, the effectiveness of this teaching method has been questioned by a number of educators.1,2 Studies have shown that active learning improves student performance.2  Traditional lecturing (similar to many PowerPoint presentations of today) results in higher student failure rates, particularly in science, technology, engineering, and mathematic courses.2

One element of PowerPoint slide decks that has received particular attention is the use of bullet points. In his discussion on PowerPoint design, David Farkas outlines the major arguments against bullet points, but rejects the idea that bullet points are inherently detrimental to instruction.  Bullet points tend to over-simplify the ideas of the presenter.  The hierarchy in which the presenter organizes the bullet points potentially confuse the audience.  And slides with lots of bullet points encourage the audience to read the slides instead of listening to what the presenter has to say.3  Given that these potential problems, how could one use PowerPoint in a more constructive way and avoid bullet points? A recent presentation moved me to reflect on how revamping presentations can turn PowerPoint slideshows from a method for passive information transmission to an engaging and active method of instruction.

Get the picture? - Key principles

Dr. Penciner offers up an antidote to the “death by PowerPoint” approach to teaching. In his discussion of instructional design, he provides simple suggestions for developing more effective presentations. His approach is designed around three key principles: tell a story, keep it simple, and manage your flow.4,5

Tell a story

Storytelling has long been an educational tool, but the art of storytelling has been lost today. Storytelling allows professionals to imagine real life scenarios and to better understand their role in practice.6 Modern instruction can employ new technology to enable “digital storytelling” where multimedia (video, music, etc.) is used to tell stories.6,7 Penciner encourages educators to use PowerPoint to augment the narration of a story by using slides of images that represent the actions or subjects of the story.4,5 In educating health professionals, storytelling using PowerPoint might consist of an image of a patient (fictional or with the patient’s permission!) with the presenter discussing the patient’s “story” or medical history with the class.

Keep it simple

The principle “keep it simple” will help make your presentations “bullet proof.” As Farkas points out, presentations have historically lent themselves to the bullet point format as presenters have a number of key points they hope to get across to the audience.3 Penciner suggests that these key points can be more effectively portrayed using images. Using images rather than words encourages the audience to focus on what the presenter is saying rather than reading the slides.  In turn this allows the audience to more effectively remember the message of the presentation.4,5  In practice, how do you keep it simple? Re-format each slide with three (or more) bullet points and separate each “point” onto its own slide (for a total of 3 slides).  Find an image that represents that point.  Then cut the wording down to one to three words that clearly state the central message.

Manage your flow

In order to manage the flow of your presentation and use simple slides as described, there are two additional documents you should have available. The first is a set of presenter’s notes which outline the information you want to discuss with each slide. This document serves two purposes: 1) to keep you on track during your presentation (although ideally you should have practiced enough to not need these notes in the middle of presenting) and 2) to reference if asked to present the same material in the future.4  The second document is a handout to be shared with the audience.  This is a general outline of the material you will discuss during the lecture, provides space for note taking, and may include additional words to support your audience.  This document should be used by students to study the material at a later point.4

Armed with these principles, let’s change those bullet points into images.  Let’s use PowerPoint as it was intended – a tool for effective presentations and audience engagement.

  1. Reynolds G. Presentation Zen: How to design & deliver presentations like a pro. (accessed June 06, 2014).
  2. Freeman S, Eddy SL, McDonough M, et al. Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proc Nat Acad Sci 2014 Early Edition (doi: 10/1073/pnas)
  3. Farkas D. A heuristic for reasoning about PowerPoint deck design. (accessed June 06, 2014).
  4. Penciner R. Does Powerpoint enhance learning? CEJM 2013;15(2):109-112.
  5. Penciner R. Nine words you need to know for a more effective presentation. (accessed June 06, 2014)
  6. Matthews J. Voices from the heart: the use of digital story telling in education. Community Pract 2014;87(1):28-30.
  7. Bernard R. What is digital storytelling? Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling.  University of Houston, College of Education. (accessed June 08, 2014)

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