PowerPoint Rebellion: One Professor's Pioneering Experimentation with Interactivity

By Robert Lane and Dr. C. June Maker

Most academics are content with dragging students and audience members through reams of bullet points and linear slide shows … but not this one. Read about how ten years ago, Dr. C. June Maker rebelled against the normal PowerPoint mentality to become a pioneer of the visually interactive presentation. You’ll find nothing normal about her presentation style, whether in the classroom or as a keynote speaker at international conventions.

The Pain Before Insight

The year was 1999. I was traveling with Dr. Maker in a tech support role as she made a whirlwind, month-long tour through the US, Europe, and Asia, speaking at conferences, training, and discussing her research with colleagues. Back in those days, we lugged around two large suitcases full of nothing but slide carousels and notebooks, bursting with thousands of 35 millimeter slides. Somewhere along the way, probably while lugging those beasts up London’s subway stairs, we decided, “OK. It’s time to go to PowerPoint.”

PowerPoint Rebellion: One Professor's Pioneering Experimentation with Interactivity

Figure 1: London Tube escalator and stairs

So, we scanned a couple thousand 35 millimeter slides (mostly pictures) and dumped the results into long, linear PowerPoint shows. It didn’t take long before both of us realized something was wrong:

(Maker) “My speaking style suddenly changed—and not for the better! Before switching to PowerPoint, I had a very organized system that allowed me to quickly find needed pictures while interacting with groups of students, teachers, and audience members. I could run through a sequence of visuals in one carrousel and then change out to another carrousel for a different group of pictures. Frequently, I literally pulled 35 millimeter slides out of their slots and rearranged them on the spot. It was a little awkward but it gave me the ability to be visually expressive while answering questions and adjusting to changing audiences. All that fell apart when we moved to PowerPoint. I felt locked in, out of control, unable to adjust to anything. It was awful. I actually started feeling nervous again while speaking, despite having spoken in public who knows how many hundreds of times. I thought, ‘If this is the best technology can do, I don’t want any part of it’”.

Being a technology guy myself, I didn’t want to blame PowerPoint. Yet even I had to admit that this just wasn’t working. She needed more flexibility and an organized system that enabled finding appropriate visuals just at the right moment. As coincidences go, at about the same time we happened to sit in on a random session at a convention in Beijing. We didn’t have any special interest in the session and couldn’t understand a thing the guy was saying anyway (in Chinese), but all of a sudden I said, “Did you see that? Did you see what the guy just did?”

PowerPoint Rebellion: One Professor's Pioneering Experimentation with Interactivity

Figure 2: Example of slide containing navigation buttons.

What he did was click one of several links on his slide, giving him on demand access to desired content. “Oh my gosh! PowerPoint allows navigation.” Keep in mind that we still were using PowerPoint ’97 at that time and had never seen anyone dynamically navigate between slides. Wow! I had no idea PowerPoint was that powerful. The earth shattering revelation seemed to offer a solution to our problems. And indeed it did.

PowerPoint Rebellion: One Professor's Pioneering Experimentation with Interactivity

Figure 3: DISCOVER Projects main navigation switchboard slide

(Maker) “We spent the next three years experimenting with hyperlinks and developing interactive content. Figure 3 shows the DISCOVER Projects main switchboard, a special control slide at the top of our network, linking to many thousands of other slides. Figure 4 shows a typical picture-based content slide with a thumbnail menu along its left side. Sometimes we used thumbnails for links and at other times opted for text links. Menus could go on either side of the slide, or at top or bottom. Placement didn’t really seem to matter, although eventually we did gravitate towards having menus appear on the left, or at bottom.

PowerPoint Rebellion: One Professor's Pioneering Experimentation with Interactivity

Figure 4: Content slide with hyperlink menus on the left

The hyperlinking part was easy enough but we soon discovered there was much more to the story. When you have a vast collection of visuals at your disposal as I do, and speak to many different kinds of groups, interactive presentation becomes far more involved than simply adding a few hyperlinks here or there. Robert later transformed our initial efforts into much finer instruments while developing his Relational Presentation methodology, but I still use that original interlinked collection almost daily and continue adding to it. It’s like an extension of my brain.”

Spreading Beyond Academia

I saw what we had built and trekked off into the brave, cold world, firmly believing I was about to change humankind overnight. Surely everyone would want to know how we do this magic, navigating smoothly within a power collection of slides, finding anything we need within seconds. Think about all the potential benefits to learning, sales, and audience engagement I thought. Alas, my efforts over the past few years can be described best as attempting to pull teeth out of alligators. Only recently has the world finished a complacent yawn and begun to open eyes widely.

PowerPoint Rebellion: One Professor's Pioneering Experimentation with Interactivity

Figure 5: Slide DISCOVER Projects cover slide (network splash side)

Now those eyes are getting wider daily because reality is sinking in that this stuff works. So I asked June to share a few of her experiences and lessons learned, with the hope that her thoughts might help you ease into interactive PowerPoint presentation and avoid mistakes we made along the way.

(Maker) “One speaking event in England was a real eye-opening milestone for me. We were traveling around the country, speaking to a different group of primary school teachers each day. On this particular day, I set up my equipment as usual and launched into what was to be a full-day seminar for a group of 50 teachers, discussing elements of the DISCOVER assessment. About 10 minutes into the program, I got a rude awakening. To my shock I realized that the group before me was not 50 primary school teachers, but 50 secondary school teachers! Apparently a scheduling glitch had occurred and I was talking to the wrong group on the wrong day. That meant almost everything I was about to share with them for the next 8 hours was irrelevant to their teaching environments.

The day could have been a disaster, but as it turns out, I simply shifted gears and carried on as though nothing was wrong at all. I could do so because in the weeks preceding this trip, we had integrated parallel tracks into my training materials. In other words, switchboards gave me immediate access to teaching materials and examples relevant to both groups.

PowerPoint Rebellion: One Professor's Pioneering Experimentation with Interactivity

Figure 6: Content table that doubles as a hyperlink-based switchboard

PowerPoint Rebellion: One Professor's Pioneering Experimentation with Interactivity

Figure 7: Slide that appears when you click a table link in the slide shown in Figure 6

Figure 6, for example, is a table that doubles as a switchboard. I click different sections of the table to reveal examples of students’ work (Figure 7). When developing the separate presentation tracks, we placed identical tables like this one in both, but adjusted examples accordingly (grade group k-2 or 6-8). While speaking to a particular audience, I could select material relevant to their interests—and on another day address a whole different context. It wasn’t a big deal then, in this case, to reorient my thoughts and simply take off down the paths my secondary teacher viewers needed to see. I doubt if any of them realized that within a few seconds I was able to completely re-engineer the entire day’s talk, right before their eyes. You have no idea what a relief it is having that kind of freedom. I’ve worked around many awkward situations over the years by making timely adjustments to the planned agendas, usually without the audience even knowing.”

(Lane) “What other lessons have you learned since then that act as guiding principles?”

Know Your Content

(Maker) “Oh, my … there are many. Well, there is no substitute for knowing your content and knowing what you want to say at all times. When moving around between topics, you must always keep perspective on where you are in your message, what content is available, what ideas you plan to share with people, and where to find that information. Some viewers get the impression that I bounce around between visual topics at will, as though having a spontaneous verbal conversation—and it does look that way sometimes—but in reality I know exactly what I want to say, when I want to say it, and where to find the slides I need. The process is very well planned in advance. Certainly I do make decisions spontaneously now and then, especially while answering questions or when an idea pops into my head that wasn’t anticipated. For the most part, though, my talks and classroom sessions are highly planned and I know my stuff; navigation options simply give me flexibility to make small adjustments along the way if necessary.”

Don’t Duplicate Slides

“Also, I strongly recommend having only one instance of each slide in your collection and leaving all your slides in fixed locations. I didn’t do that when first transitioning to PowerPoint, back while still using standard linear slide shows. I made new shows for each performance and often copied material from one show to another. After a while, I had many different versions of the same slides scattered all over the place. It was a mess. Now I have only one copy of any slide, located in a permanent, familiar location so that I can find it quickly. On a given day, I may present to students, educators, community leaders, business executives, or whomever. It doesn’t matter. When I want that slide showing an example of superior spatial artistic intelligence at the K-2 grade level … voila! there it is. Regardless of audience, or the context of my talk on any occasion, I don’t have to think twice about where to go to find the slides I need because they are always sitting there in the same spot waiting for me.”

Choose Categories Carefully

“We struggled with an issue early on that probably will be a challenge for you as well. What if a slide fits into more than one category? In my case, a picture of a child working through an assessment exercise might be useful when talking about curriculum topics too. Should I place it in the assessment branch or the curriculum branch? I recommended a moment ago not duplicating slides. Therefore, it has to go in one category or the other, but which one? Here are a few guidelines that can help:

  • Where will the slide see the most use? Frequency of use often determines placement choice

  • When you quickly think about that slide, which category or context immediately comes to mind? Probably that same kind of fast association will happen while in front of an audience as well. Thus, place the slide where your subconscious thoughts have a tendency to look for it

  • Does the slide have more associations with one category than the other? If it has several uses in an assessment context and is only tangentially related to curriculum issues, it goes in the assessment branch

  • Once a choice is made, does it stand the test of time? If one of my pictures works equally well in one category or the other, I make a choice and then see how I feel about it over time. If I find myself thinking time and again, ‘I really don’t care for that location after all’, I move it—especially if I ever have trouble remembering where I put it.”

Build Reusable Materials

PowerPoint Rebellion: One Professor's Pioneering Experimentation with Interactivity

Figure 8: Switchboard slide that accesses categorically arranged information.

I’ve found that having all my ideas organized in PowerPoint this way is very efficient. I do add new materials now and then, but for the most part, I can show up at an event and launch into reusable material that was created years ago. Whether I’m speaking for 15 minutes or training for several days, all that content is available for display, with little preparation time necessary. Of course, it does take a chunk of time initially to set up that structure and it helps if you can get some technical support in doing so. Otherwise, if doing this on your own, take time to learn some basic interactive presentation design techniques. That will help you avoid frustration.

Place Only One Idea on each Slide

I’ll share one more principle that is critically important to visually interactive speakers: Place only one idea on each content slide. Figure 9, for example, lists a defining characteristic of Interpersonal Intelligence. While discussing that topic, there’s no reason viewers should be distracted by other bullet points on the slide. Those five words are all I need at the moment. Multiple ideas belong only on switchboards.

Using this principle has several advantages. First of all, it’s more effective. Audience members can focus on the simple visual material you display and then rapidly return attention to you as the speaker. They need not visually sort through a confusing mess on the slide to understand your point. Secondly, having only one idea per slide allows you to set up menus and then dynamically access single concepts at a time, in any order—or not show them at all. Having that kind of flexibility helps you adjust timing and relevance to viewers. Finally, the one-idea approach lets you construct categorical collections of related speaking topics. I have many such categorically arranged sections in my network that feature examples of children’s assessment performances. While discussing an idea, I can display pictures one at a time that address particular issues, from numerous different perspectives. It’s a very elegant way of expressing meaning clearly.”

PowerPoint Rebellion: One Professor's Pioneering Experimentation with Interactivity

Figure 9: Example of a slide displaying a single, text-based idea

Visit the Aspire site for more information about the visually interactive presentation style discussed above, where you will find free tutorials, video demonstrations, and PDF guides. Visit the DISCOVER Projects site to learn more about multiple intelligence-based assessment and curricula.

Photo of Robert Lane

Robert Lane is a US-based presentation consultant specializing in visually interactive communication theory and is the author of Relational Presentation: A Visually Interactive Approach. His Web site, www.aspirecommunications.com, features free demonstration video clips, tutorials, guides, and other resources that further explain the concepts discussed in this article. Contact him at: rlane@aspirecommunications.com. References, visual examples, and additional resources are available on the Aspire Web site.

Photo of Dr. C. June Maker

Dr. C. June Maker is a researcher and professor of education for the gifted and early childhood education at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Her more than 30 years in academia have focused on developing assessment and teaching methods to measure and develop giftedness. Her work has culminated in the DISCOVER Projects—a comprehensive set of assessment instruments and curricular models for grades K-12. Contact her at discover@email.arizona.edu.

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