Guide on the Side - Presentation Software: The Communication Dynamics

By Marie Wallace, Published on June 1, 1999

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O'Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries' highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute's programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms "Life in Progress," which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her "free" time to various non-profit and civic activities. Always open to new ideas, Marie can be reached at: ax852@lafn.org.

Remember when technology meant using a microphone or a transparency? Now there is a sophisticated and changing array of technology options. Presentation software has become very popular and with good reason. Speakers can quickly show what they mean without a lot of props or other cumbersome maneuvers. Technology saves time and helps audiences to understand and remember but communication dynamics are still fundamental.

Presentation software packages, like PowerPoint, Harvard Graphics or Persuasion, are excellent platforms for creating presentations that need visual explanation. For example, demonstrating how to Shepardize requires that the audience see what Shepard's looks like and how the information is organized in order to grasp its utility. By contrast, if you have a story to tell (what happened to the associate who failed to check cites) and nothing tangible to demonstrate, you may dilute rather than enhance your tale by delivering it with technology.

Presentation software involves four communication modes: speech, text, graphics and electronic. Each format has unique strengths and limitations. Ideally, today's presenter is fluent in each format and knows how to combine them for best results. Audiences take in and have different expectations of spoken, written, graphic and electronic information. A unique set of dynamics and assumptions is associated with each mode.

Spoken information - Dynamics and assumptions

  • Meaning received via eyes and ears
  • Syntax derived from body language, bearing, gestures, eye contact, tone of voice, pitch, pacing, pauses and language
  • Meaning modified by the audience's reaction and the occasion
  • Is a group experience
  • Immediate feedback from the audience
  • Speakers speak at about 120 -180 wpm

Reading text - Dynamics and assumptions

  • Word based and received via the eyes
  • Linear - Left to right and top to bottom
  • Black type on white background
  • Spaces between lines and words, indentations, headings and paragraphs have coded meanings
  • Syntax derived from word order and choice, grammar, punctuation and format
  • Readers read at about 250 - 1000 wpm
Viewing graphics - Dynamics and assumptions
  • Image based
  • See it all at-a-glance
  • Larger means more important than smaller
  • Color adds meaning and attracts attention.
  • Syntax is derived from shape, direction, hue, color, line, pattern, scale, dimension, texture, perspective and motion.
  • Viewers take in images the equivalent of between 1,200 - 18,000 wpm

Accessing electronic information - Dynamics and assumptions

  • Multi-media based (sound, text and graphics)
  • User chooses the mix and where they want to go
  • Navigable and searchable
  • Can be customized, downloaded and printed
  • Syntax is derived from design, structure, interface, links and sponsorship
  • Speed of access is a function of the eye and technology

What do these communication dynamics and assumptions mean for presenters using presentation software and technology? Multiple forces play out.

Spoken, written, graphic and electronic communication used in tandem can complement one another to get a point across, clarify complexity, explain uniqueness, change pace, keep the audience interested, provide interactive experiences and make available at any time. Used haphazardly, presentation technology can become protective armor for the speaker to hide in the darkness, creating a moat between the presenter and the audience. Perhaps this is why professional speakers rarely use presentation software.
All eyes are on you when you speak. At the same time, you make eye contact with the audience to establish connection and obtain feedback. When you use slides, the audience's eyes go from you to the screen. If your slides consist entirely of text, reiterating what you say, you are overlaying speech dynamics with those of text. This can reinforce your ideas but remember you speak much slower than the audience can read from the screen. The audience will read far ahead and be impatiently waiting for you to catch up. You can keep contact with the audience by limiting the amount of text on each screen and actively adding your comments, questions, examples and anecdotes.
Word pictures add a graphic dimension to text. They are more absorbing and thought provoking than sentences or lists. Word pictures consist of words plus arrows, lines, boxes and distinctive positions. They show relationships, develop abstract ideas, and map theories.
Slides can be used by the speaker as a teleprompter. This is a welcome feature but care must be taken to avoid your voice changing from conversational to a reading drone. The more graphic the slide, the less likely the speaker is to default to the "dreaded drone."
Presentation software makes it easy to run off a hard copy of the slides used for your presentation. This is a quick and painless way to generate handouts. But remember to examine the results and make appropriate modifications before you reproduce the handouts in quantity. Graphs and charts may be too small too read. A good compromise is to simplify or summarize the quantitative data in your overhead charts and tables to avoid screen resolution problems, and then follow up with more detailed and complete graphics in the handouts. Another modification to make is colored slides. They will reproduce in black and white as unreadable grey murk unless converted beforehand.

Slides showing Internet screens may be too small to read when printed in hardcopy. Instructions on how to "surf the net" for a specific application or an annotated list of useful Web sites might be more helpful. It is often better to design a handout as a information product to support user's needs than to recapitulate general knowledge. Emulate the movie industry and develop a variety of toys and performance support systems to memorialize your presentations.

Technology makes it possible to communicate across time zones, geographical boundaries and cultures. You can reach a larger audience by reproducing your presentation software generated slides on Internet or Intranet sites. Content must be adapted to convert from a classroom type presentation to web-based training, lest valuable electronic features disappear. Without adaptation your slides may:
  • Lose Web navigation features
  • Omit critical accompanying verbal explanation
  • Eliminate the speaker's nuances
  • Lose audience interactivity and feedback
  • Compress and distort the graphics
  • Make printing hardcopy a cumbersome page by page process
  • Suggest control and interactivity that can not be actualized
Using presentation technology is entwined with human communication dynamics. To present the same information in a new format almost always requires some modification. Consider the difference between a book and a movie made from the book. One is word driven, the other is image driven. A screenplay is not a word for word portrayal of a book; it is a scene by scene adaption. Notice that a book takes longer to read than a movie to see because the mind takes in images quicker than text. Observe how news of an event differs in the newspapers, radio, TV and Internet. Begin to think about how the same story can be told by a storyteller, a writer, a photographer or graphic artist, and a Web site. Aim to be quadra-lingual -- fluent in four distinct languages.

Next month (pt 2) Presentation Software: Tips and Caveats