PowerPoint: Do No Harm [Behind The Scenes]

Three People

Three people attended my presentation. Three.

Off my last OTF experience I brought 40 handouts with me. 37 came home.

When three people show up for the presentation to which you drove three hours and for which you spent 12 hours structuring content, creating slides, and designing handouts, it’s impossible not to run the numbers – that’s five hours investment into Austin, Dale, and Niko each.


I admit I’m most comfortable addressing large crowds (by which I mean, larger than three) and structuring interaction between the members. Obviously that wasn’t going to play with three people so I tossed myself out of the 747 and hoped the parachute would deploy.

I didn’t stand in front of them. I sat with them and we talked. I kept a loose grip on my wireless remote. I asked for their frustrations with PowerPoint, for their solutions. I issued challenges. I asked whether a slide would work well for kids and, if not, how it should be improved. As conversation lagged, I advanced slides and put up different visuals. The prompts and discussion began anew.

Feedback On My Improvised Constructivism

100% positive exit slips. ONE HUNDRED!!!! That’s a lot of percent right there.

On Handouts

My handout design followed the steps outlined here. To recap, if you’re simply selecting “Print” from PowerPoint’s “File” menu, you’ll find your handouts lining the recycling bin outside the venue.

Instead, create a document which will look different from participant to participant, something which reflects their sensibilities as much as it does yours, something which doesn’t mimic your slides so much as it complements them. Prompts for introspection and list-making are essential. White space is essential.

I used InDesign and invested heavily in grids. The finished product met my expectations.

On Slides

No observations I haven’t already whomped on the head a few dozen times already. Just that a) you’d better be able to bounce a quarter off any PowerPoint presentation which takes aim at best PowerPoint practices and b) on successive edits I consistently deleted slides. Whatever that means.

The Heartbreaking Moment

After we finished the third in a set of math-rich images I found onlineeg. The XKCD comic. , Dale asked, “Where do you find this stuff?” a question which I managed to miss pretty spectacularly.

“You see, um, I check a couple hundred websites each day but, see, it only takes like forty-five minutes because of this thing called, um, RSS, and you can get a reader from, for example, Google, and it’s totally free and … and –”

– and essentially I’m really unhappy with you guys for not prepping me for this one. If my personal learning internets hadn’t fumbled the ball here I might’ve had Common Craft’s explanation all queued up. Next time I’ll be ready.

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. Yeah, I tend to keep the Common Craft videos handy on a memory stick or laptop now. I’ve gotten lucky the last few times, and had them right at my fingertips, lol

    The preso I did shortly after yours digressed into diigo, but some folks weren’t even familiar with social bookmarking at all, so I showed the Plain English of that.

    Those other 37 folks have no idea what they missed! If you do ever get around to UStreaming, I’d love to see it.

  2. I keep that Common Craft video on the “RSS Basics” page on my own blog just waiting for the chance to disciple some young Web 2.0 newb who happens to come along.

  3. Just thinking out loud here…. I wonder if folks saw “PowerPoint” in the name of your presentation, and either thought “I know all that I need to know about PowerPoint” or “I don’t really need to hear anything more about that dreadful PowerPoint.” In other words, the ones who needed to hear it most filtered themselves out of attending?

  4. Haha – we feel your pain, and Rich’s comment might make sense.

    As someone else who feeds off crowd energy to be at my best as class clown/presenter, having the power suppy turned off is painful!

    I guess hundreds have seen it online, if that’s consolation…

  5. To quote Ken “I feel your pain”, too. I stopped presenting for my district several years ago for several reasons…..$17.95 an hour and one hour paid for plan!!!! and no guarentee of an audience. Hopefully you got paid better—

  6. I downloaded your presentation and handout. So I guess it’s Austin, Dale, Niko, and Matt. Make it 3.75 hours per person.

  7. You’re welcome to come give the schpiel at some point to Berkeley’s credential program. Whenever I start talking about technology, all my fellow student teachers just tune me out – maybe they just need a rational, outside voice. It would lower your hours per person ratio substantially…

  8. That 18-hour prep session is saving me tomorrow. 2-hour meeting afterschool. Wake for a student’s grandmother now. We’re doing graphing this week, so I shifted my plan from having it sooner to the day when there is minimal prep time. Thank you!

  9. Nice. PS. If you need to stretch this for more time, have them get in groups of three and make their own fifteen-second skit. One person acts it out, one person times, and one person puts up the answers. A lot of fun even if you don’t need to stretch it for more time, actually.

  10. I was wondering if you’re a disciple of Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson. If you aren’t you should pick up a copy because your perspective is really in line with his.

    His book is aimed at business presentation but makes the same arguments about graphic content.

    I’m a firm believer in your concept (and his) and here is some food for thought that I’ve been chewing on….

    A classroom is a wide bandwidth communication channel that most teachers underutilize. Most deliver just speech (coupled with horrid graphics) but there are four more senses competing for your student’s attention.

    Think of a movie theater; darkened room, tuned acoustically for the presentation, sound that rumbles your bones, and high quality video action. All of the available bandwidth is sucked up by the presentation. If they can’t control it, they keep it out of the room.

    For a classroom; teacher droning, dirty whiteboard with scribbles, Music lesson in the room next door, beautiful spring day outside the window, kids banging lockers outside the door, idiots making announcements on the loudspeaker, telephone ringing because the secretary wants something that could wait, and 30 desks with 14 different heights and finishes.

    There’s really no comparison. Classrooms waste the bandwidth avaialable to them so it’s filled with crap you can’t control. Bad bad movie, no matter who’s doing the acting.

  11. Just got home. Depending on how things go skits will be stretcher tomorrow or pulled on next week. (Earth week apparently means unpredictable schedule.)

  12. Hey Paul, that’s insightful analysis there. A lot of the media in the multimedia is out of our control (your loudspeaker announcements, ringing telephones, etc.) but I’m afraid a lot of us aren’t even aware of the classroom as a sensory experience.

    Thanks for the recommendation too. Never read Atkinson but I’m unsurprised we arrive at similar conclusions. I imagine my experience with trial and error isn’t mine alone.

  13. Also, another summer project request. (Because you’re not busy enough.) Could you post a bit more about handouts. An example of the slidedeck you use and the matching student notes.

    I think I’m finally getting the sense; but need to fight the voices from the school that tell me I handouts must be duplicates of my bullet-point powerpoint, with a few words replaced by blanks. Because otherwise how will they take notes?

  14. Here’s some more food for thought regarding classroom communication……

    I’m new to teaching math, after 40 years as an engineer. One of the things (among many) that really shocked me when I started this journey was walking into a school to find that absolutely nothing had changed after 40 years.

    Well at least the mimeograph machines are gone (if you know what they are I know how old you are:>}). Here’s what’s new on the outside: tv in every room, tv on your smartphone, ipods, internet, computers everywhere (my house has more computation power than all of IBM in 1970), cellphones, 100+ channels of tv, 4 GB ‘sticks of gum’.

    Here’s what’s new in (the vast majority of) classrooms…

    Our kids live in a rich communication environment until they get to school, then it’s back to what?? My guess is that a teacher from the 19th century would be quite at home in today’s classrooms if you just trained them on copying machine usage. Actually, thay probably wouldn’t require copies.