Whether to Use PowerPoint?

Using PowerPoint, all rights reserved.

One of the big questions in preparing for facilitation is whether or not to use PowerPoint.

PowerPoint (or similar software) is a way of presenting visual information. The form this information takes in your PowerPoint can vary substantially.

There are no hard and fast rules here.  Factors include your personal preference; the content; the approach; the audience; the venue; and the equipment.

Before going too far, I would like to state that for about six years I did not use PowerPoint in any of my training courses.  I used a whiteboard, butchers' paper and markers extensively.  I was quite comfortable working without PowerPoint, but eventually felt the need to 'codify' my whiteboard scribblings - especially as my scribblings were not particularly graceful.  Since starting to use PowerPoint I seldom facilitate without it; using it to support the spoken word and physical materials, but not in place of them.

Your Personal Preference
You may love or hate PowerPoint and choose whether to use it on that basis.  This not a great justification either way, except that your personal preference may affect your proficiency and level of comfort using PowerPoint.

If ignorance of PowerPoint is holding you back, a short course, or even a few hours 'having a play' might make a big difference.  Don't forget to present to friends initially if you have limited or no experience facilitating using PowerPoint.  As with so many aspects of public speaking, practice and experience can make a big difference.

The Content
If the content you are using can benefit from visually presentation, PowerPoint can be excellent.  This could be in the form of words or pictures.  Unlike some facilitators, I use words more than any other content.  These might include: the list of topics for the session; questions to be answered by small groups; a draft vision/mission; input collected during an earlier activity; or homework for participants.

Visual content can include a Gantt Chart showing a project timeline; a map showing a route or a location; a diagram explaining relationships, such as a mind map of stakeholders; the layout of a building or a room; a photo or schematic of a product; etc.

(If you are interested in a spirited defence of the value of PowerPoint, Ray Poynter has made some excellent points in a blog called "In Praise of PowerPoint" at the Future Place Blog, click here.)

The Approach
Sometimes your approach will lend itself to using, or not using, PowerPoint.  For example, if you are going to be giving potentially confusing instructions, they can be supported by using PowerPoint, in order to make the initial message clear, and also left up on the screen, so people can follow along as they undertake the instructions.

Alternatively, you might avoid PowerPoint if you are going to be moving around from room to room; or if you do not know specifically what you will be doing during the session.  It is unusual, but not unknown, to decide what you are going to do on the basis of what you find out immediately before or during the session.

The Audience
Unless you have been given explicit instructions, you may be surprised that your audience probably has few expectations regarding your use of tools like PowerPoint.  Even if they do have expectations, if they are contrary, you may change their minds through the way you use, or work without, PowerPoint.

Another aspect to consider is that members of your audience may be blind or visually impaired, including those who neglected to bring their glasses, and are thus disadvantaged with visual content.  Size of text and graphics can be useful, but can be insufficient.  Many blind people are accustomed to use sophisticated technologies to 'read' written text, or even 'see' diagrams and other graphics.  You are best to ask the person what you can do to assist them.

Another aspect of your audience is their ability to 'process' your messages - the biology of the human brain.  There is an excellent post on this topic at the Brain Slides blog called "Why a neuroscientist doesn’t use PowerPoint" (click here).  I could not have said it any better.

The Venue
The venue can have a big impact on your ability to use PowerPoint effectively.

It is generally not necessary to operate in a dark room.  However, many projectors are not effective if used outdoors or in bright light.  Projecting onto a screen rather than a wall (especially a shiny one) can help.  Projecting onto a window is generally impossible, due to the bright reflection of the light coming from the projec

Some venues have excellent equipment.  In these places it may seem to be a shame not to use it.  However, this is a poor reason to use PowerPoint.  As long as some equipment is available, you can judge for yourself whether you use it.

The Equipment
PowerPoint can be used in a number of ways, from using a personal computer, notebook/laptop or tablet (such as an iPad) with a small group, to connecting this device to large monitor or a digital projector and using a wall or a screen.  In many cases the screen produces a much clearer picture than a painted wall.

Some barriers to the use of such equipment include ownership, affordability and confidence in setting up and/or using the equipment. You must work within your means.  As described earlier, there are alternatifes to PowerPoint.  If it is a luxury for you, or you are overly reliant on the support or patronage of others, consider going without.

Plan B
Failure of technology or organisation, or other reasons, may result in an inability to use PowerPoint.  Always be ready and willing to work without PowerPoint.  Consider how you might go about this ahead of time.  Methods include, using a whiteboard and markers (or a blackboard and chalk); handing out a summary of your slides or the actual slides, a simply saying the things that you had planned to communicate using PowerPoint.