Bullets are dead. Long live PowerPoint

The art and technology of presentations has evolved considerably in the last 20 years. The importance of serious communication skills to go along with those presentations gets more important every day.

I

've been spending a lot of time in PowerPoint lately. One of my clients is working on some strategic planning and nothing begs for slide decks like a strategic plan. I'm not being entirely tongue-in-cheek. Slide shows, whether created in PowerPoint, OpenOffice, Google Apps, Zoho, SlideRocket, or any other tool can have incredible value as communication aids, long- and short-term documentation, discussion guides, you name it. But as I hammered away at a couple of presentations, it occurred to me that most of us in education are doing a miserable job of teaching the art of presentation.

I happened to work with a real PowerPoint guru today. While I can wordsmith until the cows come home, perfect messaging, and even toss together some helpful graphics (SmartArt is my friend), this woman could singlehandedly wipe out the scourge of death by PowerPoint. Of course, she's a graphic designer. It's her job to make things look pretty. But the presentations she created weren't just pretty. They were effective. The boiled a lot of information down into graphics and text that could support one heck of an extemporaneous speech or group discussion.

That 5x5 rule I mentioned above? My dad taught me that rule. 25 years ago. A business teacher mentioned the same rule to me a year ago. Where our students are hopefully going after they graduate (you know, higher education, good jobs, that sort of thing), the 5x5 rule no longer applies. Bullets hardly even apply anymore. Communication, with slides as one of many important media, is the single most important skill we can give our students. Teaching PowerPoint 101? That doesn't count.

Teaching public speaking with an emphasis on the effective use of visual media with time spent in a computer lab learning time-saving design features in the tool of your choice? That's how to teach communication.

PowerPoint, no matter how you feel about Microsoft, is perhaps a more important industry standard than even Word or Excel. Don't get me wrong: I like Google Presentations and use it for interactive presentations and shared documentation all the time. However, it (and OpenOffice Presentations, for that matter) simply can't compare to the rich and easy tools in PowerPoint 2007 and 2010. SlideRocket gives you a different, but almost as compelling toolset, but PowerPoint remains the gold standard for good reason. It deserves a place in students' and teachers' toolkits.

However, it's just that: a tool. It's no substitute for creativity, writing skills, and public speaking skills. It's a backdrop that can guide a speaker and an audience and remind them later of key ideas, but without fail, the flashiest, best-designed PowerPoint deck won't keep an audience engaged without a strong speaker presenting it.

The 5x5 rule and the bullets for which it cries out are dead. Presentations are alive and well, even if they are part of a webcast or online meeting. Regardless of the industry, strong presentation skills, combined with a reasonable sense of graphical design, can go a very long ways towards making a career.

For those of you who left PowerPoint 101 behind, share what you've done to make sure that students walk away with both the soft presentation skills and the hard multimedia skills to succeed.

Further reading: "Thoughts about presentations" over on the Virtually Speaking blog