Musicological Musings with a smattering of Miscellanea

Sunday, September 30, 2012

PowerPoint Presentations: Proceed with Caution

There may seem like no drier topic than writing about PowerPoint, but I think it is an issue worthy of conversation, particularly in how it is used in academic settings. I've seen PP presentations improve over the last few years, but occasionally I still encounter the PP presentation that tries to compete with a Broadway show (rather than support the speaker), or falls flat out of some sense that PP slides are an obligation.

 I heard many wonderful papers at the Fall meeting of the New England Chapter of the American Musicological Society yesterday.* I was particularly struck, however, by Dan DiCenso's paper, "More Roman than "Gregorian," More Frankish than "Old Roman": What a Newly Rediscovered Italian Source Reveals about the Roman and Frankish Character of Chant Transmission in the Mid-Ninth Century." The presentation was not only full of intriguing content, but was an exemplary use of PowerPoint. Dan's presentation was also a good model for engaging a mixed audience on a topic that may be relatively foreign to a large group within the audience. He included comparative tables which clearly illustrated the various relationships between the Monza manuscript and the S├írospatak fragment, as well as other Old Roman sources. There was no need to be well-versed in medieval manuscripts, as Dan presented his information as clearly-defined visual data. Thoughtful use of circles and arrows highlighted particular elements of a slide as he spoke.

I used to teach at a place that had fully wired classrooms, so I made use of the technology and encouraged the students to do so as well.  When a group engaged PowerPoint slides for their projects,  this was a learning experience for all parties involved. There are two major errors I see in PP presentations: The Gratuitous PowerPoint and The Overwrought PowerPoint. I will define each, and indicate the pitfalls of both types.

The Gratuitous PowerPoint: This is the PP presentation filled with photographs, special fonts, fancy formatting, and all sorts of bells and whistles that offer little more than entertainment value. This is often motivated by a lack of substance in the actual presentation.


  • Visual input can detract from aural input (for more on this, I recommend reading Rich Mayer's ideas regarding cognitive loads in Multi-Media Learning)
  •  The opportunity for students to grasp the outline form of a presentation might be impeded by various kinds of visual miscellanea
  • Forced PowerPoint presentations can lead to sloppy work (I remember well a presentation on composer Roger Sessions which began with a slide of software architect Roger Sessions, simply because he was the first result in a Google Image search).
The Overwrought PowerPoint:  Similar to the Gratuitous PP (but often stemming from different motivation) this is the PP that tries too hard and probably includes too much information.

  • There is so much information included on the slide, that the viewer is either distracted by the presenter, or the two cancel each other out. Students often feel it necessary to copy everything down off the slides.
  • Highlighting everything can corrupt the structure of a presentation, as well as allowing viewers to hone in on the emphatic points of the presentation.
  • Often there is little else left to be said, so the slides become a transcript of the presentation.

There are certainly more pitfalls, but I'd rather focus on what I like to see in a PP presentation, and how I do think they can be beneficial--both in terms of the process of making a presentation and in terms of the impact on an audience.

  • The student is forced to draw out the cogent and important main points from their topic
  • The student can decide what needs visual illustration and what does not
  • The student gets experience giving a presentation accompanied by visual media
  • Helps engage the student with different modes of learning
  • opportunities to put faces to names (particularly helpful in the classroom)
  • musical examples (CAVEAT: full pages of score with tiny annotations are better viewed on a handout--especially in a large conference setting).
  • simple animations to highlight events in score examples
  •  in-slide audio examples
  • can help reinforce reading of lengthier quotations (as long as they are read aloud with the presentation of the slide).
  • using charts, tables, and graphs to represent comparisons, historical trends, etc. Again, this can engage multiple modes of learning by re-framing something with non-traditional illustrations. For example, a melody might be expressed as a graph of pitches (y-axis) in time (x-axis) to effectively demonstrate the concept of "melodic contour" in a music appreciation course.

So, PowerPoint presentations can become a crutch if used incorrectly. The general rule I give my students is: PowerPoint should enhance your presentation, but if the technology fails, your presentation should still be engaging and informative. This encourages both backups (CDs of musical examples) and a sense of responsibility regarding what is presented off-slide.

What are your PowerPoint tips? Pet peeves?


*All the slide presentations at this meeting were fine to great, according to the criteria I propose here.