Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

PowerPoint is a crutch that shows a failure to teach public speaking

Poor public speakers use PowerPoint as a crutch
(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

It’s been said that most Americans would rather die than speak in front of a crowd. While this isn’t actually true  ̶  public speaking is nowhere near the top of the list of Americans’ greatest fears  ̶  one in five people are still afraid or very afraid of public speaking. That number would be lower, I imagine, however, if more people were taught how to speak publicly and do it well.

How many times have each of us sat in a classroom and listened to another student nervously stumble over their words during a presentation? How many times have each of us been that student? Like a drowning puppy gasping for air, we turn to the PowerPoint slide behind us to help remember what we wanted to say and how we wanted to say it. We ask ourselves, “How did it sound in my head last night when I was writing this slide?”

Poor public speakers use PowerPoint as a crutch. They substitute skilled oration for a half-hearted reading of the slides. Why listen to someone read bullet points when the audience can just read the slides themselves? Even comfortable public speakers, like some professors or graduate students, often rely so much on PowerPoint that their presentations become dull. When this happens, audiences tend to tune out.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with PowerPoint. It’s a powerful tool. When used well, speakers can display pictures, videos, equations and any other visual information they wouldn’t be able to show otherwise. This makes much of the internet presentable and is why PowerPoint has been successful for over 30 years. Other presentation software, like Prezi, have not been able to replace PowerPoint because of how dependable and consistent the program is.

But PowerPoint becomes more harmful than helpful when the presentations have paragraphs of text. Audiences must either focus their attention on the slide or the presenter  ̶  they can’t do both at once. The slide distracts from the speaker or the speaker distracts from the slide, but either way the audience is done a disservice. In fact, “students retained 15 percent more information, delivered verbally by the lecturer, during traditional class presentations than during PowerPoint presentations,” according to a 2009 experiment. Rather than being distracted by the screen, audiences deserve to be able to focus on the presenters and what they are saying.

PowerPoint assists good presentations, but are vital to bad ones. Good speakers can speak without needing the PowerPoint to carry them through the talk, but poor speakers rely on the slides because they cannot talk without them.

In the specific context of college, some students like to look at the slides before or after class to review the material from the lecture. However, professors should provide students with class notes to look at instead of the PowerPoint slides. Too often the professor uses the lecture slides as the class notes, and in-class time is wasted when the professor parrots the text on the slides. What if the PowerPoint contained visual aids and a loose guideline while the class notes, like an in-depth study guide, summarized the material taught in class? Sure, this would mean professors would have to make both presentations and note sheets, but this would also lead to more enthralling and productive courses.

For every class project requiring a PowerPoint, students should be taught public speaking and graded on their presentation skills. Public speaking skills are useful and necessary, and should be treated that way by middle schools, high schools and colleges. If more people were experienced and comfortable presenting in front of a crowd, both the audience and the speaker would benefit. Maybe then public speaking could drop lower on the list of Americans’ top fears and let the next fear, “devastating flood,” have some time to shine.

Joe Frank is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].

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