Journal: News & Comment

Sunday, January 19, 2003
# 12:13:00 PM:

More on how Web pages can be better than PowerPoint

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My Friday post on avoiding PowerPoint for presentations brought in a fair bit of traffic and a number of responses.

Here's a nice long rant from Matthew Thomas, who proposes that software makers "develop presentation software which not only lets people choose between a pie graph and a line graph, but also helps them make the right frigging choice." Another two interesting points came from Lee Potts:

I wonder if [Derek] considered adding CSS [Cascading Style Sheets] to the mix.

What if you abandoned the slide, next slide model that [PowerPoint] has the world locked into and developed a presentation delivery style that was based on scrolling through content instead.

Cascading Style Sheets in presentations

I did use CSS to a limited extent in my presentation, just for colour and font control. Even then, they were useful because I could easily adjust for different font sizes and screen gammas (colour and brightness balance) on Windows and Mac systems by tweaking the style sheet. One change, rather than 20!

Certainly, with more advanced CSS/DHTML, you could even do some of the moving text and layering that some PowerPoint users like. My point in my original post, however, was that all that fancy stuff (as with Flash and many other techniques) is only really good in the hands of someone who knows what they're doing -- which isn't most people, and certainly not me. Generally, simple visual aids are better, to focus on the content and the story rather than the technique.

My father-in-law, an experienced dentist, has been called to do his first computer-based presentation, a few months from now. He was worried about having to learn PowerPoint so he didn't look out of the loop. I suggested he just focus on what he wanted to say and what visuals might help that, then we'd figure out the best technology later. He was relieved.

Here's another way to think of it: My wife (his daughter) has been a high school teacher for over a decade. Essentially, she's doing interactive presentations -- teaching classes -- all day every day, and children's schooling and future lives are at stake in what she does, not just next quarter's sales figures. She knows how to use PowerPoint. But what does she use in class? An overhead projector and coloured pens. Most of her colleagues are the same, even the ones who always have the latest techie toys, or are keen to try new teaching techniques. That says something.

The "scrolling model" alternative

Until Lee mentioned it, I hadn't really thought of taking advantage of page scrolling in presentations -- which shows how much the slide-based approach (derived from the old technology of film slides, and needlessly limited by it) has infiltrated our consciousness. Why did the first presentation programs, then PowerPoint, choose a slide-based moel rather than something else? I'm not sure. Why did it persist as the only apparent model? Just momentum, probably.

Just off the top of my head, scrolling would allow many things. At one extreme, the whole presentation could be one big scrolling page, in an overhead-roll model like the real one my wife uses, and we could scroll back and forth to discuss sections we've already covered -- with the added benefit of in-page markers (on the same page, another page, or another monitor) to click back or forward even in a long page. In other ways, you could have a large-scale, vertical-orientation photograph or diagram and scroll up and down it. Surely there are all sorts of other possibilities I've not thought of.

I remember my (now just retired) grade 9 math teacher Mr. Ujimoto with his long, long acetate roll of math notes. If he came upon a topic one day that we'd talked about before, sometimes he'd roll roll roll back until he arrived at the notes from the original lesson, to re-make a point he made the first time. Why not do that with linked Web pages for presentations too? If you had a live Internet connection and posted everything to a site, as I did with my last set of slides, you could even go back to your archive of last year's presentation on the spur of the moment if someone had a relevant question. Neat.

And, again, not something PowerPoint or Keynote does internally. Like so many other things in computing and technology, we need to force ourselves to think not so much about what presentation software is good at, but what it's good for.


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