Have you ever been bored at a business or academic conference? Maybe it's not your fault. Seth Godin writes that conference organizers too often shoot to satisfy the middle of the bell curve with the goal of being average and avoiding failure in an attempt to pull off a successful event. It's all so similar. All so typical. Even conference presentations aim for the average. Says Godin,"...we end up being flown on average planes to average hotels to sit in average conference rooms and hear average speakers doing presentations filled with bullet points." Since most conferences focus on the "typical," Godin suggests we become atypical if we're serious about making an impact. "Stories and irrational impulses are what change behavior. Not facts or bullet points." We need to connect, then, with people's emotions too.
Just the facts?
Conference speakers need to appeal to the rational side of their audience, of course. Humans are rational beings after all. But our evidence, proof and "facts" need to be placed in context and need to connect and appeal to the emotional too. Some argue that emotion is not necessarily irrational, that intelligence and emotion go hand in hand. And that may be. My point is that facts alone are rarely a sufficient condition for change or impact (though they are a necessary condition).
Typical PowerPoint fails twice
A college professor told me that she attended a national conference in Japan on English teaching recently and that one presenter gave a PowerPoint presentation on the topic of multimedia in the classroom. Sounds exciting, right? The speaker's presentation, however, consisted of an endless stream of bullet points detailing (with text) what is possible today with multimedia. Ironic...but not unusual.
Proof that we live in a sick "PowerPoint culture," many conferences today require speakers to follow uniform PowerPoint guidelines (to insure that they all look fairly similar) and submit their PowerPoint files far in advance of the conference. The conference now takes these "standardized PowerPoints" and prints them in a large conference binder or includes them in the conference DVD for attendees to take home. What the conference organizers are implying, then, is that an encryptic series of slides featuring bullet points and titles makes for both good visual support in your live presentation and for credible documentation of your presentation content long after your talk has ended.
Trying to kill two birds with one set of slides
Attempting to have slides serve both as projected visuals and as stand-alone handouts makes for bad visuals and bad documentation. Yet, this is a typical, acceptable approach. PowerPoint (or Keynote) is a tool for displaying visual information, information that helps you tell your story, make your case, or prove your point. PowerPoint is a terrible tool for making written documents, that's what word processors are for.
Why don't conference organizers request that speakers instead send a written document that covers the main points of their presentation with appropriate detail and depth? A Word or PDF document that is written in a concise and readable fashion with a bibliography and links to even more detail, for those who are interested, would be far more effective. When I get back home from the conference, do organizers really think I'm going to "read" pages full of PowerPoint slides? One does not read a printout of someone's two-month old PowerPoint slides, one guesses, decodes, and attempts to glean meaning from the series of low-resolution titles, bullets, charts, and clipart. At least they do that for a while...until they give up. With a written document, however, there is no reason for shallowness or ambiguity (assuming one writes well).
To be different and effective, use a well-written, detailed document for your handout and well-designed, simple, intelligent graphics for your visuals. Now that would be atypical.
Thanks to Jon Gabriel for the inspirational title of this post.