After a two-day conference here at the Getty on “Rites of Passage” in Greece and Rome (that’s birth, puberty, marriage, death rituals, and the like), I can report that PowerPoint use among professional classicists falls into similar patterns on both sides of the Atlantic.
On the one hand are the PowerPoint virgins – those who start their presentation (and I suspect they do it every lecture they give) with a little speech about how it’s their first time and plaintively ask which button to press. Emotionally I’m one of these. After all, when I first lectured in Cambridge twenty odd years ago I used black and white, 3 inch by 3 inch slides, shown through something similar to a magic lantern. It was a bit antiquated even then – but it means that, for me the transition from hand held technology, through remote control slide carousels, to computer systems has been disconcertingly swift.
That said, this whole virginal line is beginning to wear a bit thin, or at least to look as self-advertisingly quaint as using a type-writer or taking snuff. Most places you go to lecture now wouldn’t know what to do if you turned up with a carousel of slides – or, at best, would eventually drag out of the cupboard a dusty machine that hadn’t seen the light of day (or a new bulb) in ages.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are the PowerPoint professionals. Frankly, these are just as bad.
We’ve probably all seen them. No technological stone is left unturned. Red arrows zoom in and out of their pictures, often accompanied by appropriate sound effects. The images never stand still, but merge, reconstruct themselves, turn 180 degrees and change colour with dizzying rapidity. No visual metaphor remains un-literalized. “The sun rapidly set over the British empire” or whatever…comes instantly pictured by, of course, a setting sun.
On the basis of a couple of year’s observation, from my position of near virginity, I humbly offer the following words of advice to all academic PowerPoint users:
1) Resist bullet points as hard as you can. The PowerPoint instruction booklet is very keen on these, but it is impossible in my experience for bullet points to transcend the banal. The typical screen looks something like this:
• Hard to understand
• A long time ago
• Evidence tricky
It might be OK for a pep talk in a sales drive (though even there I doubt it). It looks plain dumb in a lecture.
2) Never put a complicated text on a PowerPoint. There’s not enough time for the audience to read it properly. An old fashioned handout does the trick much better. The listeners can read it at leisure and they can scribble on it too. It also gives them something to take away. The bottom line is that an academic audience is not so very different from a class of seven year olds – they like a party bag/piece of paper to go home with.
3) If your university demands that you put their logo on every frame, try to stand up against it. From the outside, this may seem scarcely credible – but some universities are so keen on product placement that they won’t let you make a presentation using their equipment without it automatically including their “brand” (University of Poppleton, or whatever -- I'm not naming and shaming, but I could!) on each frame. It’s a bit like having the name of your employer tattooed on your forehead, and looks almost as bad.
These seem to me the worst PowerPoint pitfalls (as well as the temptation to try out all those bits of clever visual trickery). Resist them – and you’ll find you have a presentation indistinguishable from an old-fashioned slide-show.