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PowerPoint in Training – When a good thing is not a good thing

Posted June 8th, 2010

I thought I’d write a few words about a topic that often comes up in discussions about training, and that is the use of PowerPoint slides. I have received many emails, had many discussions and attended many meetings where the subject of PowerPoint in training is raised. What is obvious is that there are those that are strong advocates and others that are not so convinced by the use of PowerPoint. Personally, I fall into the latter category.

I should start by announcing that I think PowerPoint is an excellent tool and its use has helped presenters and trainers immensely over the last two decades. The idea of returning to acetates and an OHP fill me with dread. Having said that, I believe the fantastic ability and usability of PowerPoint means that those very users have become too reliant on the tool and training has suffered as a result.

As a trainer and training designer, I get very frustrated by people who equate a good training course with how many slides are included. I have even recently read a training design company’s view that a days training should include between 60 – 100 slides. I’m sorry, but this is just poppycock! This would mean that you are displaying at best 10 slides per hour or 1 every six minutes. If you are showing slides at that rate, then you are simply providing no time for activities, review, discussion or even any meaningful commentary from the trainer.

This point brings me to the key element of importance regarding PowerPoint during training and that is the statement, ‘PowerPoint should support the message, not the trainer supporting PowerPoint’. Without following this critical element you fall into the trap of letting the technology, not the content, become primary.

Training should be interactive and indulgent for the learner. It should allow time for the participants to explore the practicalities of an issue as well as to absorb the theory in a relaxed environment. If we simply present information to participants in a slide format we become lecturers, not trainers. To reiterate, PowerPoint should support training materials and the trainer in order to help the learner learn. This means using the tool as a reference point, a method of highlighting a point with an image or where it is not possible to demonstrate a point without a graphic or text based representation.

Some argue that they use PowerPoint as a method of ‘sorting their thoughts’ and although their training course has 2698 slides with it, ‘I won’t be showing most of those’. Well, great, but there is always the danger that someone else training your course will and besides that, surely there are better ways of laying out the structure of a course? That, to me, is why we invented Trainer Notes.

A regular study that is carried out by a website called, ‘Think Outside the Slide’, shows the dangers of PowerPoint and how it is perceived by the audience. Although the data is aimed at presentations rather than training I think it shows very well how problematic PowerPoint can be. The data reveals what annoys people most about PowerPoint.

The speaker read the slides to us – 69.2%

Text so small I couldn’t read it – 48.2%

Full sentences instead of bullet points – 48.0%

Slides hard to see because of colour choice – 33.0%

Overly complex diagrams or charts – 27.9%

As you can see, the speaker reading slides is the most annoying thing to people and although this study was taken in 2009, the same point has been top for every bi-annual study since it started. The author reads a lot into this and it is well worth a read, but my thinking is that the participants don’t like having the slides read to them mainly because they could do that for themselves. As someone on one of my courses recently said about a previous course, ‘The trainer was so intent on putting his notes on the slides, I couldn’t help but feel he should have just emailed his notes to us.’ This brings me back to the point that training should be interactive and involve the participants throughout. PowerPoint limits the potential to do this.

On a typical Trainer Bubble training course you will find something in the range of 12 – 24 slides per day. This will include the ‘title’ slide as well as two ‘objectives’ slides (one to open and one to close the session). PowerPoint advocates might feel that this is a bit sparse and that consequently the training course lacks content. This is certainly not the case and our thousands of customers will testify to this. The fact is, our training content is based in the Trainers Notes, where it should be, and the participants that attend one of our courses will gain knowledge through the information provided by the trainer, the activities they explore, the exercises they carry out, the discussions they take part in and then finally the supporting materials they see and receive. After all, as Confucius said, “Tell Me and I Will Forget; Show Me and I May Remember; Involve Me and I Will Understand.”

Confucius probably had it right too , because from various research sources we know that we remember from: the Lecture (5%); Reading (10%); Audio Visual (20%); Demonstration (30%); Discussion group (50%); Practice by doing (75%) and Teaching others (90%). Even a good set of slides will only meet the Audio Visual element of this and at 20%, that’s not a very good return. Of course it’s not possible to make teachers out of all our participants and so the aim is to involve areas from each of these principles. A good training course will do this and allocates as much time and effort to each principle as the output justifies.

To sum up, PowerPoint is an effective tool to use during a training course, but it is only as good as the person using it. Let it support your training course, but don’t let it BE your training course.

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