PowerPoint presentations have received much criticism regarding excessive use of text and the lack of contact with the audience. Interviews with beginning and advanced presenters shed a light on the reasons why. They show that especially beginning presenters use the program as a speaking note and as a means to draw the attention away from themselves. Some presenters even think that PowerPoint can replace rhetorical skills.
PowerPoint seems to make presenting easier, but it is a double-edged sword. Presenters are able to make slides without any previous training. They are unaware of some basic communication principles and use PowerPoint for the wrong reasons and with bad results!

Guidelines for working with PowerPoint state that making (eye) contact is the most important factor for a good delivery, whereas looking away from the audience (e.g., to look at the words on a PowerPoint slide) is considered a poor way of presenting. They also advocate a limit to the number of slides, bullet points, and words on a slide in favour of more visuals.

Given these guidelines, the question is why presenters would use so much text on their slides.

  • Are presenters not aware of these guidelines and employ a common sense approach that is not in line with principles of human information processing?
  • Or is it that most presenters, out of speaking anxiety, are using PowerPoint as a tool for themselves, to remember the words and structure of their presentation.

We interviewed 24 scholars; 12 first-year PhD students and 12 advanced, prizewinning scholars.

Reasons for using PowerPoint

The three most important reasons they use PowerPoint can be categorized as:

  1. Support for one’s memory
  2. Diverting the attention of the audience
  3. Support for the audience

The beginning presenters with little experience used more words than the advanced presenters. The latter group used almost twice as many pictures as the beginners. We speculate that beginners require more words on their slides to help them overcome their anxiety and to support them through their talk. Advanced presenters often indicated that they like to present without the use of PowerPoint because this allows for more contact with their audience.

Presenters in our study lacked specific training in the use of PowerPoint; they learned to present with PowerPoint by experimenting and by observing colleagues. Some seem to think that by using PowerPoint they need to spend less effort in preparing and rehearsing their presentation.

Some even seemed to think that the use of PowerPoint could replace rhetorical skills, such as the proper use of voice and articulation.

Presenters design their slides based on what can be considered to be “common sense.” But this “common sense” lead to outcomes that are inconsistent with the guidelines for slide design and good presentations!

Based on: Hertz, B., Kerkhof, P. and van Woerkum, C. (2015) Why Do Scholars Use PowerPoint the Way They Do? Business and Professional Communication Quarterly , Vol. 78(3) 273–291. Download the full article as PDF