Papers into PowerPoint: Help Your Students Turn Their Papers into PowerPoint Slides

Academic papers are not good candidates for PowerPoint slides. Instructors, conference organizers, and seminar conveners expect submitted assignments and papers to have all the trappings of academic legitimacy, which means a literature review, justification for hypotheses, extensive description of methods used, and evidence used to support empirical conclusions. I have seen students build PowerPoint presentations by beginning at the title page and systematically working their way through every section, faithfully following their papers’ layouts.

Consequently, they create presentations with massive walls of text, few visual aids, too many embedded references, and so many slides that they can’t finish in the time allotted. Because they are afraid of leaving out essential points, slides are crowded with text from top to bottom. Some even copy whole paragraphs from their papers onto the slides. Inevitably, two things happen. First, to assuage their fears of overlooking something, students use slides as their scripts, mindlessly reading the slides to us, word for word. Second, audience members who try to read what’s on the slides while at the same time listening to what the student says – – after all, it is possible that presenters will slip up and say something unplanned – – find the task impossible. Our brains are not wired to listen and read at the same time, regardless of what some people believe about “multitasking.”

With so many slides to cover, students soon find that they are running out of time. What to do? Should they omit some of their precious slides, pushing past minor slides to get to the major points? Or, should they just talk faster? Nine times out of 10, “faster” wins because they hadn’t prepared for the possibility that they would need to edit on the fly. Consequently, they can’t do it. Their only option is to talk faster.

Raven Discovers Humans

Raven Discovers Humans, by Bill Reid, UBC Anthropology Museum, Vancouver

I suggest a better design process. First, tell the students to organize the presentation as if there were no paper. Ask them to put the paper away and not consult it again until they have a first draft. If they have read the literature, created a paper outline, written the paper, and then copyedited it, they should know the story by heart. No need to continuously consult the paper while preparing the slides. Second, they should find out exactly how much time they will have for the presentation. In a typical 15-minute presentation, presenters can probably cover six or seven slides, or maybe a few more if they are just graphs and pictures. If it is a seminar presentation and they have 20 or 30 minutes, they can add a few more slides, although I prefer to add more words to my oral presentation than slides to the slide deck. Regardless of much time is allotted, presenters should practice the entire talk at least twice.

Third, using as few slides as possible gives presenters flexibility in how they use their time. With more slides, each of which must be displayed/described, presenters’ hands are tied when they realize they are running out of time. (Or in exceptional cases, they discover a time surplus!) Having a small number of slides, from the very beginning, means that presenters prepare to talk more and consciously work harder to maintain their connection with the audience.

Fourth, presenters should reflect on the story they want to tell. How will it begin, how will it end, and what needs to go in the middle to justify the ending? I emphasize again: do this without going back to the paper!

Try this experiment: Imagine yourself in a conversation with a friend. Explain to them the problem you set out to address in your paper, what motivated you to take it up, what previous work was critical in shaping your own thoughts, how was your research designed, where did you get the data, how did you do the analysis, what did you find, and what does it all mean?

Fifth, plan the flow of the presentation. For a 15-minute presentation, presenters should lay out six or seven blank sheets of paper on the table and moving from left to right, write down the main point they will make with that slide. These slides will be the script, but not a script is read. Instead, the slides, and especially the graphics on them, will be their cues as to where they are in the story. Think of the slides as analogous to the story-board that movie directors use to plan their shots. Some of the slides might just have a title and a picture or two, whereas others might have a few bullet points. Full sentences are deadly for PowerPoint – – they encourage people to read, rather than listen.

The Internet allows access to thousands of images, and under the Creative Commons licensing system, if you give credit to the originator of the image, you’re free to use it however you choose. Find relevant images that convey the point of the slide. Ideally, they should advance the story and comment on it.

Finally, when presenters have finished the first draft of the story, with each slide having a title and possibly an image, consider turning on the built-in design assistant from PowerPoint. I found it makes great suggestions and you can create eye catching graphics by following its advice.

No amount of fancy design work will make up for a poor story, but many a good story has been ruined by poor design. Help your students get a leg up on the process by telling them to put the paper away and craft a story from their own understanding and imagination.

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