Communication Currents

Uncovering the Powers within PowerPoint®

August 1, 2007
Visual Communication

If you've ever watched children build with LEGO® blocks, you've seen them use the blocks correctly without reading the directions. That's because the design of the blocks tells children how to use them. In similar fashion, the design of PowerPoint® tells users how to construct messages. Just as the LEGO template invites certain connections but restricts or prohibits others, the design of PowerPoint limits how you can structure and present ideas. Understanding this hidden truth of PowerPoint will help you exert greater control over your messages and how they are interpreted by your audiences.

PowerPoint is quite different from pen and paper, word processor or chalkboard because its design controls the structure, organization and interpretation of the messages we compose. Our words and images must fit into templates based on pre-fabricated logic, much the way LEGO blocks must be connected as their designers intended. Without stopping to consider this, it's easy to overlook an audience's need for knowledge and understanding beyond what's afforded by the two-level headings and bullet points that typically appear on PowerPoint slides.

Designed as an aid to accompany speech, PowerPoint is a hybrid between the visual and the written. When we pay attention to the design of our writing--to whether we are putting key words at the beginning or end of a sentence, for instance--we are likely to communicate more effectively. In the same way, it makes sense to understand the impact that PowerPoint's design has on our ability to communicate ideas to an audience.

Think of a complex concept, project, idea, or plan that you'd like to present using PowerPoint. First, you must chop the content into slide-sized segments (that will appear to be similar in logical importance because the slides are all alike). Then you must put the slides in a linear order. Once the presentation starts, the inevitable forward march through the slides makes it difficult to expose a complicated storyline, shift voice, or refer to ideas previously presented. Logical elements of contrast, exclusion and disjunction are almost impossible to accomplish within PowerPoint. Everything must fit or be modified into the PowerPoint window. Every time I have discussed these qualities of PowerPoint with university instructors in the United States and in Europe, someone has confessed to changing the content they were teaching to fit the structure demanded by PowerPoint.

The primary design element of PowerPoint is the slide as the unit of display. By comparison, the unit of display in writing is the page. This difference is important because the use of a slide limits the complexity of ideas presented and the relationships between them, more than pages do. In a book or magazine, pages don't intrude. Writers can use as many words as needed to express themselves across the pages. Meta-discursive tools such as chapter titles and headings help readers stay oriented and show connections between ideas that can be reviewed by leafing back through the pages. Thanks to the printed page, writers can express non-linear narratives through flashbacks, changes of voice and long transitions. But PowerPoint's qualities make these types of connections nearly impossible.

Because slides dominate, no matter how complex or rich the ideas to be expressed, they must be fit into slide-sized segments and put in order. Templates also exert a powerful influence by limiting the organization of content to two logical levels: a topic and subordinate points. The logic of the content and its internal connections appear the same way in every slide, even when connections are weak. PowerPoint asks its users to isolate parts of an idea and simplify complex relationships. Yet people develop and retain complex ideas by chunking facts, interpretations, and images into meaningful clusters.

Fortunately, there are some ways around these limitations. The isolating effects of slides can be mitigated by using meta-discursive tools to chunk ideas within slides and create an external skeleton between slides. Chunking is the mental process of clustering or merging bits of information perceived to be related. Chunking provides context and meaning for the individual bits of information. PowerPoint templates divide into levels and separate ideas. An external skeleton is an explicit logical structure that serves provides a larger frame of chunked ideas. An external skeleton can overcome the disjunctive quality of the slide to isolate ideas. Together these techniques can help overcome PowerPoint's insistence on connecting material in specific ways within slides and its failure to connect overarching concepts across slides.

To hold ideas together within and between slides, an addition to each slide similar to the bread crumbs used to navigate web pages works extremely well. Here's an example of a slide using an external skeleton:

Example Power Point Slide

The text box in the lower left corner of the slide shows the relationship of this slide to the rest of the slides and helps viewers (and readers of the ubiquitous handouts) see how the ideas are actually related. This serves the dual purpose of suggesting that the topic of “good evidence” is more complex than the two sub-points on the slide (chunking) and previewing the related topics (external skeleton). Audience members know that the discussion of evidence entails two more dimensions after the definition. Clustering ideas assists memory and interpretation by creating context for the ideas and by making clear the relationships between the main topics. Creation of this device is easy, since it is nothing more than a textbox within the slide. As it develops across slides, it connects the ideas between them as well.

Using this device or something like bread crumbs is especially helpful within the multi-modal context of presentations using graphical displays (pictures, charts or animations) along with the speaker's verbal commentary or verbal gloss. The external skeleton not only assists audiences in locating specific ideas or remembering what has been treated in a presentation, it also means that the ideas function together and have more value than a list of terms, phrases or facts.

The design of PowerPoint directs its users to fit content into a limited logical structure--topic and subordinate ideas--and individual slides isolate these concepts in distorting ways. But presenters can overcome these constraints by taking advantage of features that add context, connect ideas and deepen an audience's understanding of complexity and nuance. Like LEGO blocks, PowerPoint is simple enough for grade-schoolers to use. But unlike LEGOs, its design does not have to dictate the shape of the outcome.

About the author (s)

Mark Stoner

California State University, Sacramento