Do not underestimate the power of the dark slide.

Yes, there is one. A dark side of PowerPoint I mean. It can be a tad dominant (like Vader). In fact, some presentations look as if the speaker has thought only about what they could show in PowerPoint, instead of what they wanted to say.

All the books I know that deal with preparing presentations say that you should first identify your audience and goals, and then generate content and structure. Creating visuals comes after that and should be one of the last things you do. And yet I see a shocking number of students who, when asked to prepare a presentation, immediately start PowerPoint, Keynote or even Prezi. This is beginning to annoy me, so I asked myself: what would happen if I told my students that the projector was broken, and they would have to improvise?

I tried this a while ago: they improvised.

For this particular lesson I had asked my students to prepare a presentation in groups of two, using slides, just like they always did. This time when  they came in, however, I told them that there was a problem with the projector and that they would have to come up with a creative solution. I gave the group 15 minutes to prepare. The results were not only educational, they were spectacular.

One student used her partner as a prop. She explained the aerodynamics of speed skating and made him assume different speed skating positions to show what she meant. She was thrilled to have a movable 3D model on a 1:1 scale to help her make things clear. Between the lines it became audibly clear, by the way, that maintaining a certain knee angle for a long time is not necessarily very comfortable.

Another student made three people from the audience perform as passenger aircraft , flying from Amsterdam to New York in formation (arms wide, propeller sounds, pilot banter), slowly moving through the room together. They managed to land safely one by one.

Some groups found out that the slides that they had made were pointless and that the presentation worked just as well, or better, without them. They certainly noticed that the audience were listening quite intently to what they were saying.

The thing is, not only did we prove that life without slides actually exists, but also everybody in that group still remembers exactly all the presentations we had that day. Of course my spectacularly innovative didactics may have played a role, but I like to think that most of the presentations simply had more impact than they would have had if they had used slides.

Of course PowerPoint is not a useless tool; it can show in a flash what would otherwise take you hours to explain. But it is just that: a tool. One of many. The presentation is not what you show, the presentation is you, and there are several moments in any presentation when you as the presenter may want the audience’s full attention, without being distracted by PowerPoint. Then you might use that most wonderful of features in PowerPoint: letter B on your keyboard.

Hitting letter  B will make the screen go black, which will make everybody focus on you (I call it B for Bob). Anything you say now will be consumed like hamburgers by a starving man. Trust me and try this; and I promise that the power of the dark slide will be with you. Always.

Oh, and you should have seen the look on my students’ faces when, after our class had finished, the next group came in and started the projector, which was working perfectly well…

A cat, algae and a small snake

A few years ago I was asked to coach the contestants in a pitching contest for one of the big oil companies. The goal of the pitches was to present new, greener energy sources. For one of the participants I was able to come up with a shrewd plan involving a prop.

A prop can be anything you bring to the presentation for demonstration purposes, but don’t take this too far. I once saw a man who brought a cat to a presentation in order to demonstrate the mechanics of it landing on its feet. The cat was not happy. You can guess how it ended. It’s amazing how fast a cat can move its claws when it is properly motivated.algae

Anyway. William, my student, came on to the stage carrying a glass that was filled with something that looked like algae in water. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, he said, I would like to present to you algae, the biofuel of the future!’ and he held up the glass. The audience were properly impressed and William put the glass down and floated fluently through his presentation, describing the many benefits of his idea with great confidence.

When he got to the end though, he appeared to be making a dreadful mistake. He said: ‘I am sure that this fast-growing green fuel will be available in every service station in less than five years. I’ll drink to that!’ And he set the glass to his lips. The audience, who had been quite captivated, jumped up and shouted: ‘No, no, no! Stop, you fool! You can’t drink that!’ And William smiled and said: ‘Yeah yeah, don’t worry. It’s lemonade … Cheers!’ Needless to say that William won first prize.

Props can be really helpful if you do something with them. Don’t just stand them on a desk or they will be very distracting (unless they are a glass of lemonade). The more spectacular looking props are best kept hidden until you need them. Show them when you do – and make sure everybody can see them – and then put them away again. I remember a biologist who left a small snake lying on the desk just for decoration. To this day I still have no idea what his talk was about and I am guessing nobody else in the audience do either. Something to do with snakes, probably…