This week I was invited to give a two-hour presentation to a computer club on PowerPoint. That was the only direction. It was to be about PowerPoint. So I had latitude in deciding what to talk about. In essence, there are two main issues: the purpose, and the mechanics of how to achieve the purpose.

Even in a two-hour presentation, all aspects of both topics cannot be explored in detail, so given the general expertise of the group (it was a computer club), I decided to emphasize determining the purpose and goals of a PowerPoint presentation and the various artistic and psychological considerations that determine whether the presentation will be effective. My reasoning for taking this approach was that most people seem to be more concerned about the mechanics and put little or no effort into considering the purpose of the presentation. Since this audience was composed of computer savvy people, I assume they can pick up the mechanics themselves with a little help and after seeing some examples.

A PowerPoint presentation that is aimed at raising money or pitching a business proposition is different from a similar presentation for education. Entertainment and amusing presentations have totally different ground rules. Google on PowerPoint tutorials or something similar and you will be flooded with advice, some of it good. Occasionally you will find dogmatic statements such as “No more than seven words on a slide.” That might even be good advice for some things. More relevant is the warning not to use the “This is a horse” title over a picture of a horse. Use titles that convey some information. “This is a horse” does not convey additional information to the audience. Limit the number of fonts used — this is an especially good warning since I happen the like fonts and have more installed on my computers than any reasonable person would want.

So I showed bits and pieces of several presentations designed for different purposes and even showed how the overall tenor can be changed with a few clicks by using different themes or downloading new ones (unifying the presentation with a theme is good practice). Then we talked about the dangers of excessive use of special effects. Slides zooming in to the sound of screeching brakes might have been cute 10-15 years ago, but does that add to the purpose of the presentation?

Some key presentations I showed were travelogue slide shows. From watching the audience, it appeared that many of them might not have thought to use PowerPoint as the basis of a personal slide show, and they had not considered making a slide show with videos inserted. Most of us now carry cameras and phones that can take both still and video pictures. Combining both in a single presentation is convenient and effective. Other programs can do this, but if you have some expertise in PowerPoint, the slide shows you can generate easily are certainly more flexible than what you can do with Picasa.

So was my presentation effective? The sad answer is that I do not believe it was as well received as I wished. The group is a good one, but when it comes to the crunch, I think they would have preferred me to emphasize the mechanics of creating a presentation rather than concentrate on how to effectively present concepts using PowerPoint as a tool. If I do it again (and I probably will), I will likely start with a blank screen and create a short presentation about how to make a PowerPoint presentation right in front of them. It will not exceed about ten slides in length and have at least one video inserted and several different ways to reveal bulleted text. After making that presentation, I will run through it, and then change theme and maybe a few details on some slides and give it again. Only then will I go into the communicative and educational techniques along with the individual artistic expression that can really make a good presentation. Hope it works.