Note to self (and other Dhamma teachers): don't use powerpoint

When I started giving talks in Australia in the mid-noughts, powerpoint was IN. It was the proper, professional thing to do. I never used it for regular talks, but on occasion, for more serious presentations, I put them together.

Lately, given my dislike for all WYSIWYG software, I’ve been using remark.js, which basically lets you write your slideshows as markdown. It’s cool, and lets you compose attractive slideshows without a clunky GUI.

But powerpoints, or slideshows more generally, are usually a bad idea. There’s a bunch of research out there, which basically shows that there is little or no benefit to using slideshows, and it may even harm your message.

To my mind, the most persuasive indication as to the effectiveness of powerpoint is showcased by Microsoft themselves. They make the software, they must understand how useful it is, right? Here’s their major product presentation from last year.

See how effectively they use powerpoint? It’s so subtle, it’s almost as if it weren’t there! (Narrator: it was not, in fact, there.)

Powerpoints divide the students’ attention, and they shift the teacher’s focus from the students to the machines. More insidiously, they encourage a presentation of information as sliced up factettes, items listed in order that get an explication, but which do not evolve or connect, and lack emotional and logical coherence.

And this is why good speakers don’t use them. Seriously, think of all the people who actually communicate well, and see if any of them use powerpoint.

Of course it’s just a tool, and there are valid uses. If you need to present visual information (graphs, images, etc.), show a video, or give some facts as basis for a discussion, them sure. For myself, I might want to show a phrase or passage that’s under discussion.

But don’t just make a list of items and read from them, or worse, give a slab of text. A presentation is not a set of lecture notes. It does not engage students, nor does it enhance comprehension or retention.

If you find yourself wanting to use powerpoint, ask, “Can I do without it?” And if you do use it, ask, “What is it that genuinely needs to be communicated visually?”

Use your voice. It was good enough for the Buddha. :speaking_head:

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I used to go to some talks on psychological topics together with my blind friend. The speakers usually presented their stuff with PowerPoint—it was awful! I had to divide my attention between three things:

  • listening to the speaker
  • looking at the presentation
  • “translating” what was on the screen to my friend

The result was, she retained much more of it than I …

I am very much for using the voice! :+1:

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Yes, this is the worst use of PP, no doubt.

Before the pandemic I almost never used PP. But I found this technique to be sometimes useful:

Basically only having one or maybe two words on a slide. I found that when teaching kids especially, using this to keep everyone remembering what we were talking about could be very useful. Especially dealing with suttas where there was a big long list of things. Some of these slides aren’t perfect examples, but you get the idea:

I found that it allowed me a bit more freedom to explain when I knew that if they ever got lost there would be the topic up on the screen. Also works well if they are connecting using a small device.

This one is more strict with the technique

But I doubt I would start using them for in person classes.

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Actually from students perspective, whiteboard is the way we like to be taught. It shows that the teacher is putting care and effort to explain. A good example is the Late Thich Nhat Hanh, who used to write down in chinese the important terms very beautifully, although not a lot of his audience could read the chinese, everyone was clear that Thay gave the matter he was explaining a lot of importance. Some dharma teachers keep talking without a break and that causes the mind to wander and the dharma to flow out of it. I think it’s good to keep a balance between talking and using the whiteboard.

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  1. Pali class is hard to do without using powerpoint or some whiteboard. We want to see the Pali to english translation.

  2. I use ppt mainly to remember, as a prompt for what to say. And for citation, so I don’t have to remember off hand, having done the homework earlier.

  3. Well, I got the advice to use simple, picture, or very little words on slides very early on. But I like to put as many of the points on the slides for the sake of just giving the audience the slides, they can study it like lecture notes later on. Instead of them needing someone to explain what mysterious thing this ppt is trying to say. I myself like it when my lecturers in university have slides that can be read like lecture notes. I also know the utter boredom if the lecturer just read off the slides without anything else to add. Like a robot. Sometimes, some points I didn’t include some additional stuffs/stories in the slides, I tend to forget to say them when presenting the next time.

  4. It’s totally possible and cool to just speak on the spot, see what comes out as well. Just that it’s a different way of dhamma talk and may not be very systematic, unless one trains a lot in rehearsing or gave the same talk so many times.

  5. Advantage of ppt, I like to use animations on the slides. Nowadays, I don’t put so much effort, but for physics stuffs, it’s cool to have animation to let people get some mental picture of what’s happening. As well as embedded videos etc.

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I’ve been on a lot of courses where they used a PowerPoint presentation, and also distributed a handout of the PowerPoint. Mostly I preferred just looking at the handout!
It’s nice to have something to take away from a course.

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I am not a Dharma teacher, but I think slideshows have a definite place. Many are visual learners and when many things interrelate and, especially when they change over time, a picture really is worth a thousand words.

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I didn’t even think of that!

Thinking it through, the way most people use powerpoint is not going to be useful for people who are have either vision or hearing impairment.

  • If you can’t hear, seeing a truncated set of points is not very useful
  • if you can’t see, there’ll be an odd disconnect as the speaker points or refers to things on a screen.

It would seem that just speaking is better for accessibility. It works fine for the visually impaired, and if you can’t hear, then there’s a job for a signer, which will at least be straightforward.

Having said which, I can imagine that in some more marginal cases, for example one who is hard of hearing, or who is not a proficient language user, having text reinforcement might be good.

The studies I’ve see didn’t compare ppt with the use of whiteboard. I guess it’s different, because the teacher is creating the content on the spot. It’s more engaging.

Yeah that sounds like a good idea, basically there’s nothing to “read” it’s just a keyword to absorb.

Funny how people cram info into a slide like there is a shortage of them.

Sure.

The ppt is for them, not for you. If you need notes, make yourself a set of notes.

It’s not either or. Ppt is a way of presenting information for students, not a crutch for lecturers.

I agree. That place is at the end, when other ways of conveying information are not adequate!


I spent much of Sunday working through a set of slides for presentation with a friend who I’ll be working with. I was acutely aware the whole time of how bad the whole thing was, and took out as much as I could. The real reason for continuing to use slides has zero to with helping the students, but is only because the teacher expects to use them.

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That’s a very common comment from students, and for lectures I like to have various equations and graphs on one screen and do derivations and so on on a separate screen. The covid reality at the moment is that our lectures are recorded, so unfortunately I have to use a document camera not a whiteboard (which allows much more natural body language and interaction).

I would point out, though, that there is a very large difference between a lecture to students and a seminar or conference presentations. When I’m presenting my research at a conference I’m not going through derivations of equations and so on.

Some Dhamma presentations are more like my lectures (e.g. where Bhante Sujato is demonstrating Bilara, etc), some more like my conference presentations, where general points are being made and I expect the audience to already know the details. Either is fine, but it’s good to consider what exactly you are trying to do.

On other issues:

  • I agree that the slides are for the audience, not the speaker. I think it’s also worth remembering that everything about a presentation should be for the benefit of the audience, not the ego of the presenter.
  • It’s very true that people have different learning styles. That is why aids like diagrams are so important in some areas. I wouldn’t dream of trying to teach physics by just describing Newton’s Laws, etc…
  • Finally, since a conference audience will typically contain non-English speakers, in a conference presentation I would often have more detail than strictly necessary simply to make it easier for them if they have trouble understanding my speech, or want to review later.
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As a business person who has seen way too many PowerPoint presentations I very much agree with Bhante @sujato. Just the sight of that opening PowerPoint slide is a trigger to get drowsy. :rofl:

I do agree that there are specific times PowerPoint is a useful tool. It has its place if care is given to why specifically you are using it. But it’s not a good default.

I used to teach an MBA class and to prepare students for real world IT issues the rule was that I would role a die before each presentation and if it came up 6 there was an IT failure and they couldn’t use the computer. Students found their “backup presentations” were so much more engaging than their planned PowerPoint presentations by the end of the term a lot of groups stopped even doing a PowerPoint and just did non-IT dependent presentations.

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Yes, but you have to admit they’re good for

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That’s really important to remember.

That’s an awesome method! What do they call it, Powerpoint roulette?

:joy:

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I never found anyone who did it other than me. I called it “Technology is Not Your Friend Roulette.” :grin:

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Towards the end of my corporate career, I found a couple of ways to present that became very useful to me, and I’d like to share. I realize a corporate meeting and a public speech are different, but nonetheless, Perhaps my experience may be useful.

I used slides in two different formats. First, when I needed people to look at something on the screen/slides, I would present the slides to them, but only with the visual content. I never wrote any text on them. I realised if people read they don’t listen. So as I’d move around the room I’d point at the content.
The other way and what really changed my presentation game was to make the people turn their back to the slides. So if I needed the support of bullet points to remember where I was going with my talk, I’d have the slides with text at the other side of the room where only I could read them, and people would have only me to look at and listen to.
Of course when this happened I always made sure I used the room with the big whiteboard so I could write on it.
I’d then encourage people to take a picture of the board if needed, and I’d always send the slides to the participants after the presentation anyway, with changes if needed.

I found that presentation slides were a support for me and no-one else.

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