Pictures for the sake of pictures.

4 10 2010

Senior Historian #1: “I saw you read a paper once.”

Senior Historian #2: “I was asleep at the time.”

Senior Historian #1: “I couldn’t tell.”

I heard that intentionally loud, joking exchange shortly before the start of a session at the conference I was attending this past weekend. As much as I wish they were talking about reading papers off the page, that exchange was sparked by all the speakers in the session setting up their PowerPoints. Their assumption was that using PowerPoint requires intellectual effort. Reading your paper off the page doesn’t.

Having watched many, many academic PowerPoints over the last few days, I’m not sure the first half of that equation is necessarily accurate. There are many instances where having pictures really helps a presentation. Maps, for instance, can be a godsend for making some arguments well. I saw another paper where the illustrative power of the pictures was so good it just made my jaw drop.

Nevertheless, even the best pictures add little when they are not integrated into the presentation. The exchange above assumes using PowerPoint and reading your paper off the page are mutually exclusive. they aren’t. I listened to far too many otherwise excellent presentations which reminded me of one of those filmstrips during elementary school where the teacher plays a record and when the beeping sound comes, they advanced to the next picture. If you have good pictures or maybe even just good quotes, then explain your slides as they come up. If you don’t need the pictures to make your point, then concentrate on conveying your ideas rather than trying to do two things at once.

Am I wrong, or has the use of PowerPoint at history conferences now become the rule rather than the exception? If I’m right, perhaps it’s time for everyone to remember that you are under no statutory obligation to use any particular technology, even if everybody else does. And if you do use PowerPoint, for heaven’s sake make notes on your script as to when to advance the slides so that you aren’t force to backtrack through the material you just covered five minutes ago.

I don’t mean this as a pro- or anti- PowerPoint screed. It all goes back to my earlier call for people to stop reading their conference papers. I’m not anti-PowerPoint, I’m pro-entertainment and pro-thinking. All the best presentations I saw last weekend were off-the-cuff (and I’m not counting mine in that). Even if your audience is a bunch of academics, you still have an obligation to be as entertaining as possible. Otherwise, nobody is going to remember your ideas when they go back to school the Monday after the conference is over.


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