To Powerpoint or not to Powerpoint

My typical author visit presentation lasts an hour. I begin with a brief Q&A intro to get the kids’ attention, then I do an interactive 25-minute Powerpoint thing (I have a number of those to choose from, depending on my audience), followed by a 20-minute thing where I bring 12 kids up to the front of the room and we act out the steps from story idea to published book, and I end with general Q&A. I am, of course, always willing to adjust to the needs of the school. If they want a considerably shorter presentation, I shorten the Powerpoint or even give up the how-a-book-gets-published exercise. Rarely do I give up the Powerpoint.

But I just got an e-mail from somebody who invited me to speak at an upcoming event. She wanted to know whether I needed anything for my presentation. She went on to say that she would “strongly caution against using Powerpoint.” She said, “in the past when instructors have used it, they lose their students’ attention quickly.” And, “students get antsy when watching Powerpoint slides.”

Hmm.

I don’t HAVE to use Powerpoint. In fact, because I am only doing 25-minute presentations at this event, I considered doing something completely different (something that didn’t involve Powerpoint OR my usual how-a-book-gets-published exercise). But in the end I decided there are things I’d like to be able to show the kids…and I need Powerpoint in order to do that.

But if the people who invited me would rather I NOT use it…?

So I got to thinking about Powerpoint and its role in author presentations.

Believe it or not, I’ve actually found that kids are MORE attentive when I use Powerpoint than when I don’t. (And I’m not just saying that because I like Powerpoint.)

I’m not entirely sure why they’re more attentive…I suspect it has something to do with my personality. I’m not somebody who puts on a show when I do an author visit. I don’t sing, I don’t dance (well, not when I do an author visit, anyway), I don’t do voices. If that’s what you’re looking for, don’t invite me to speak at your school. That’s just not who I am.

When I do an author presentation, I’d rather show the audience who I am than put on a show that feels forced and unnatural for me. Isn’t that why I was invited in the first place? Because a bunch of kids in a school read my books and somebody in charge of author visits thought the kids would enjoy meeting me?

Sure, I can talk about my books without Powerpoint, but I know I am not as interesting without pictures. I can tell the kids that I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was their age, but I think a statement like that has more impact if they can actually see an example of something I wrote when I was their age. I can tell them that writers revise a lot, but again, it has more impact if I show a manuscript that’s been marked up by an editor. And when I talk about my Buddy Files series, you can bet I’ve never lost a child when I’ve put up a video of training my own dog to heel, “leave it,” or “turn out the light.”

I also talk about my writing process and let the kids help me put together a story. Again, that could be done without Powerpoint, but it’s difficult for kids to keep the elements of the exercise inside their heads. It’s better to have a something on a screen to prompt them each step of the way.

That said, there is absolutely a right way to use Powerpoint and a wrong way to use Powerpoint. And I have certainly seen my share of bad Powerpoint presentations. A bad Powerpoint presentation is overly text heavy and/or it relies on the bells and whistles that are available in Powerpoint without offering much content. Perhaps this organizer has seen too many bad Powerpoint presentations and that’s where her “in the past when instructors have used it, they lose their students’ attention quickly” comment comes from. I get antsy, too, if I’m watching a presenter read from his/her Powerpoint slides.

Or maybe this organizer just doesn’t want to have to set up Powerpoint for all the presenters. I’ve talked to another author who presented at this event in a previous year. She told me she had trouble with her Powerpoint there. If the people who are putting on this event aren’t particularly tech savvy, I can see why they might try and persuade people not to use Powerpoint. If you’re trying to set up Powerpoint for someone else and it doesn’t work, and you don’t have any idea why it’s not working or what you can do to make it work, that can be a real pain. Plus, I know from experience that when you’re organizing a big event, there are a million things to do and you don’t want to have to take time to wrestle with a computer and projector that won’t talk to each other.

But if that’s the case, why not just say so? I’d much rather hear, “you’re free to use Powerpoint if you’d like, but if something goes wrong, you’re on your own” than “in the past when instructors have used it, they lose their students’ attention quickly.” Then I could weigh the likelihood of something going wrong against my confidence in my own ability to troubleshoot and decide for myself whether to bring the Powerpoint or do something else.

So what do you think? DO students get antsy when they watch Powerpoint slides?

15 thoughts on “To Powerpoint or not to Powerpoint

  1. Great post! I haven’t had much chance to do school presentations, but at the ones I have done and those I’ve attended (Me? Miss the chance to hear an author speak, just cause I’m not 8-years-old?!), it sure seems like the kids respond tremendously to having something visual in front of them.

    I’ve gone around and around on this question for me with presentations for grown-ups at conferences and workshops, and I haven’t made the step yet. I have seen too many situations where someone with powerpoint couldn’t get it to work, or there was only one screen to go around with multiple presenters. I’d like, I think, to develop one, but know that I might need to fall back on just me and be ready to do that. 🙂

  2. Hi Dori,

    Pictures, videos, and prompts to enhance/illustrate what you’re saying sounds fantastic. And I agree–I’m not a flashy performer either–usually Powerpoint draws them in. The times I’ve seen students antsy is when it’s a bad Powerpoint, like you described–or if students are stuck waiting for the grown-ups to figure out the tech stuff. 🙂

    Becky

  3. I’ve never used a PP there before, but that’s just because each session is so doggone short. YES, kids like PP. As long as it’s interesting and fun and the slides keep moving, what’s the prob? Go ahead and use it. I can’t help but think that she just hasn’t seen a decent author PP. 😉

    That said, it took them 10 minutes to find me a microphone last year (because I was put in a large, echoey area), while kids sat there and waited. Got your own equipment?

  4. I think students get antsy–IF the Powerpoint is done poorly, and IF the Powerpoint replaces the presentation instead of is a complement to it. This is a really good article called Powerpoint is evil on why some people hate Powerpoint: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.09/ppt2.html

    From the sounds of it, that’s not the sort of Powerpoint you do–you’re not reading dozens of words off a slide or doing it as a replacement. You’re using it for illustrations, visuals, to give people something to look at/focus on. So I’d say you’re fine.

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