PowerPoint: Won’t Someone Please Think of the Children

The Bad

Stop pushing the complete text of your presentation into your slides.

From John Sweller at the University of NSW, Sydney, Australia:

“It is effective to speak to a diagram, because it presents information in a different form. But it is not effective to speak the same words that are written, because it is putting too much load on the mind and decreases your ability to understand what is being presented.”

You’d think everyone could sing along with this by now, but there are still too many bullet points out in the world of PowerPoint.

Sweller also gets a bit more editorial:

“The use of the PowerPoint presentation has been a disaster,” Professor Sweller said. “It should be ditched.”

There’s too much good out there to abandon it outright. But I’d love some sort of licensure that’d forbid anyone from using PowerPoint who spent more than 10% of her presentation facing the screen. Failing that, audiences need to get a lot more discriminating with their time, praise, venture capital dollars, speaker review forms, attention span, positive body language, or whatever else is at stake.

PowerPoint, incidentally, does us no favors with its incessant auto-formatting.

The Good

Amazing slide deck here. Leisa Reichelt is my hero.

You want to bang your next presentation outta the park:

  1. grab a digital camera,
  2. [Update] set it on a tripod (so the photos align)
  3. set the exposure to manual (so each photo looks more or less the same)
  4. put bullet points on post-its
  5. take a photo after each one
  6. use wipes between slides so it looks like you’re writing each new bullet point in front of your audience.

And by all means, notice that the post-its force the presenter to get concise, to present rather than recite. I swear, if you’re a teacher using PowerPoint, don’t let me catch you blowing this.


  1. Miranda July’s beautiful, aggressively un-designed website, No One Belongs Here More Than You.
  2. Presentation Zen, first, foremost, forever.
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I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Go DAN! I am a firm believer in less being more – however I don’t always achieve that!

    It is great to bring these issues into the forefront. I don’t think this kind of a topic gets much air time because most people are not educated to have a conversation about visual elements.

    I think it would help if that type of vocabulary was introduced to make the transition from thinking about creating PPT in a more interesting way to actually constructing PPT in a more interesting way.

    People have the background about reading along with someone reciting what is on the slide doesn’t make a great PPT presentation – great stuff!

    But now how do they do it, apart from the step by step guide… Where else can a person go with this idea?
    What is it important about composition?
    Why are your math worksheets so powerful visually?
    What is it about the simplicity of design that will attract a student to the subject matter on the page?
    Why do your slides with the bullet ants work SO much better than the other ones?

    People have seen this on your site, but the language to take this problem of design apart is not there… minimalism?! What does it mean? Why is it so important?

    I don’t know if it has to be or if this is the place for it, I grapple with this visual to verbal problem all the time as an art/digital art teacher… how do you explain visual ideas, moreover how do you teach another person the language they need to express their personal visual ideas?

  2. Great work, Dan – you’re the only educator I can find exploring the dynamics of graphic design as learning design. Presentation Zen is the ultimate blogging resource for slideshow presentations out there for sure but to use a golfing analogy, Garr Reynolds is like the Tiger Woods of presentation minimalism and we are still playing amateur golf. Don’t get me wrong – your skills put you at the scratch player level – plenty of raw talent and an ability to create eye-pleasing teaching material that conforms to good design principles (without getting paid) and I’m pretty much the 15 handicapper (some days stuff I do turns out alright but it’s entirely by feel and I’d better not advise anyone else about their swing!). I’m starting to think more and more about your ideas on graphic design as I create resources for the interactive whiteboard in my classroom but you’re right – it’s easy to bang out sloppy stuff but getting something to look right takes a lot of time and effort.

  3. I find myself using somewhat different powerpoint design rules in different situtations. The powerpoints (Keynotes, actually) that I use when teaching a class of students end up being different than the presentations that I use for colleagues. When presenting to a bunch of teachers, for example, I follow the design guidelines mentioned above a little better…I put less info on the screen and pass on more info verbally. For students, however, I tend to put more text on the screen, especially if it’s material they may be unfamiliar with. I’m not saying I put “the complete text of my presentation” up there, but enough so that if they were inclined to take notes, the important info would be obvious. Then again, sometimes I’ll use less info and give them a printout of the slides on which they can take down some additional notes.

    Teaching students how to give a good presentation is a whole other ballgame. I’ve had some success by trying to limit them to a small amount of bullets per slide and a small amount of words per bullet. It’s a blanket guideline that doesn’t always work, but it’s a start. Sometimes it’s a challenge just to get a middle school student to buy in to the fact that you don’t really need to accompany each bullet with a laser gun sound. I’ll be working on some powerpoints in a few classes in the upcoming weeks…I’ll try to pass on some of your design ideas.

  4. I found you through Todd Seal’s site.

    I’ve got a lot of the same ideas regarding presentations and the fact that teachers often kill student interest right off the bat with the design of their presentations and handouts. Trying to explain how to design things is hard and designing things well takes time. For me, part of it involves always looking at things through the eyes of designer. There’s a great SXSW presentation on that at http://2007.sxsw.com/video/movie_window.2007.php?dir=2007_trailers&id=1029
    (you can get the whole thing via iTunes)

    I’ve been trying to write a post on this for a while but it’s been a struggle. You’ve given me the inspiration to try harder.



  5. You can tweak design in PowerPoint only so far. You’re still broadcasting, a model that doesn’t work well in meetings or in classrooms. I think PowerPoint is flawed right down to it’s DNA. It’s a medium whose message is “sit passively and absorb all my knowledge.” Not particularly helpful in a classroom where the teacher is trying to help students become active, questioning learners. I wrote about this at length recently:


  6. There are two rather large and rather different issues here. On the first, I offer wobbly agreement: as a teaching tool, PowerPoint (or Keynote or whatever) is unresponsive and clumsy. I agree: it can’t respond to questions or adapt.

    PowerPoint isn’t an ideal teacher but it’s an amazing aide. Any time a picture or illustration would enable understanding, any time it would be useful to show a problem at the board, PowerPoint is there for me. Oftentimes I’ll go off script and draw something at the board or make a list of questions, but for the vast majority of the times that my instruction goes according to script, PowerPoint wrestles extraordinary blocks of times away from tedious activities (sketching at the board, writing up assignments) and hands it over to the fun stuff.

    I realize you don’t dig the idea of a “script.”

    My personal pendulum has wobbled from hardcore constructivism to direction instruction and then back to the middle somewhere. This idea that a lesson should be an amorphous entity we all — students and teacher — shape equally is a poor way to go.

    Constructivists ventriloquize direct instructionists in arrogant, totalitarian tones, quoting them like you do: “sit passively and absorb all my knowledge,” or (like in your post) “I know everything about this stuff. You know nothing.”  I’m not coming from arrogance. I don’t revel in my authority but I know lots more math than my students.

    I mean, I realize you’re trying to make a point, but playing to the extremes like that leaks credibility.

    The answer is somewhere in the middle, naturally. There will always be occasions to learn from expertise. Under those circumstances, PowerPoint will be there, ready to serve instruction not constrain it. Those circumstances demand a discussion of good PowerPoint versus the lousy. That’s what this blog has been about lately.

  7. Have you ever seen a presentation by Lawrence Lessig?

    I saw him speak at the University of Texas a couple of months ago, and his slide presentation style was eye-opening. Not only did he zip through the slides while talking at a pace unlike any I had seen used before, but the design and style of his slides was attention-drawing.

    I think we do have a long way to go with students in terms of addressing the design and style of their presentations, but talking about it with them is a start, and modeling effective uses is another start.

    I for one don’t want to see any more bright blue backgrounds!

    I love the sticky note example above. I’ve been looking for design ideas at the Design School at Stanford’s website. Some interesting ideas floating around there that inspire me.

  8. Lessig is, indeed, crazy, though I’ve only seen a video of one of his presentations. Say, Carolyn, if you’ve found anything useful at Stanford, would you link it up? I poked around briefly but only found photogenic grad students and some interesting work in bio-design.