Monthly Archives: May 2011

Politicians using Powerpoint to score political points: In the case of Mitt Romney and his health care plan slides, Hey Mitt: it’s 2011, not 1987.

By virtue of a tweet using the #keynote hashtag, I was alerted to a posting on Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire blog by guest blogger, David Meadvin.

Meadvin, who heads a Washington DC based speechwriting service after serving as a speechwriter for the US Senate, took to task Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney for his clumsy use of Powerpoint when delivering a keynote address in his home state of Michigan.

Perhaps adhering to his own speechwriter advice, Meadvin commences his post with no punches pulled:

“As a professional speechwriter, I often tell me clients that there’s no better way to sink a speech than to build it around a Powerpoint presentation. Watching Mitt Romney’s much-hyped health care speech only confirmed that theory.”

Well, let’s not beat around the bush here!

Further on, in assessing his fitness for leadership based on what he saw, Meadvin asserts:

“Standing in a lecture hall at the University of Michigan, this potential Commander-in-Chief looked anything but commanding as he read and summarized 25 informational slides from his laptop to the audience.”

If you’ve been reading Presentation Magic recently, you will at this point be reminded of a previous blog article where I described the importance of authority for scientists, and how it’s yours to lose via your presentation. In the case of presidential hopefuls, it’s an even more conspicuous set of actions which can either be advanced by your presentation skills or diminished very easily.

In calling Romney’s speech “a flop” and very much placing his Powerpoint at the centre of his #fail, Meadvin writes:

“…(Romney) sounded more like an Econ 101 professor than a potential leader of the free world….”

Lest he be seen as merely a critic, he then offers the following advice which by now will have a familiar ring to it for regular Presentation Magic readers:

“…I rarely advise a client to use Powerpoint. When a presentation enhances a speech with pictures and video, it can be a great tool. But too often, slides are poorly designed, overly dense, and accomplish little more than summarizing the main points of the speech. as a result, the audience and speaker’s attention is divided between text and slides.”

Of course, good blog writing need a pithy ending so Meadvin concludes thus:

“Romney had a chance to appear presidential on Thursday. Instead, he just had me thinking about cutting class”.


Not everyone focussed on the presentation itself, with many a political pundit looking beyond the message delivery system to the message itself. When I began looking for the Powerpoint slides, ultimately to find them here in the form of a pdf, I located commenters to political blogs who were anticipating a great lecture based on Romney’s Powerpoint skills.

Let me show you a few of those slides which so caused Meadvin to think he was back in college, and which he thought were so unbecoming to Romney positioning himself as a potential President:

Later, we get to see the kind of slide that makes modern presenters cringe:

And one more (out of the entire 25) for good measure:

Here’s what I consider Romney’s best slide, not because it’s well designed, but because it gets to the heart of his argument, in trying to make a mockery of president Obama’s health care initiatives. It’s the only one really designed to trigger an emotional reaction in the audience and is reminiscent of recent Pentagon Powerpoints:

The rest of the 25 are standard fare, not worth remarking on from a presentation standpoint.

Of course, one could argue that these are effective slides for his intended audience. But surely the intended audience were not those Republican students attending the lecture (it was organised by student Republicans), but the American voting public.

Indeed, in trying to understand Meadven’s criticism, not just did I track down the slides, but also the video of Romney’s delivery. And indeed, if you just watch Romney and ignore the slides, the slides are in fact utterly peripheral to the speech.

You can see the video via C-Span here.

You’ll see Romney from time to time look at the slides, but at no time does he work them. He’s no Hans Rosling interacting with his slides, inviting his audience to share in his zeal.

Romney could just as well have done without the slides, the standing behind a lectern, the lecturing his audience, professorially.

Once more, an important presentation widely reported on in the mainstream media and the political blogosphere, draws attention to the do’s and don’t’s of using slideshows to delivery what is fundamentally an emotion-based message, couched as delivering “just the facts, ma’am”. Such arguments rarely win the hearts or minds of the voting public.

And even in professorial lectures, the overuse of text-based, dulling, disengaging slides must surely be coming to its last days.

One can but hope.

UPDATE (May 18, 2011): Looks like others are joining the “discussion”. Go here to see Ruth Marcus (Washington Post writer) and her observations in a blog piece entitled: Romney’s Presidential Disqualifier

More evidence of the need for academics, scientists and others to review their slavish addiction to traditional presenting

Regular readers of Presentation Magic, and more certainly attendees of my workshops, will know of my emphasis on understanding the active ingredients of making presentations engaging, memorable, and persuasive.

To do this, I enlist my training and experience in the cognitive and affective neurosciences (how the brain forms the substrate of our thinking and emoting) to illustrate to audiences how to do the walk and the talk.

As such, I’m always on the lookout for evidence that my theories of presenting hold water. This is in stark contrast to most trainings in presentation skills which either focus on the mechanics of software use, or design theory.

Both of these are necessary but insufficient aspects of presentation skills, and I prefer to acknowledge their utility, but go beyond – way beyond in satisfying my audiences, who usually pay well to attend and hopefully learn something they can immediately apply.

Today’s New York Times reports on research published May 13 in Science here entitled (with abstract):

Essentially, the authors compared two styles of teaching introductory undergraduate physics to two groups of more than 250 students each.

One group received traditional lecture-style instruction, and without yet receiving the original publication from the authors (a request has been submitted), I can only assume it was the traditional Powerpoint style of information presentation together with white or blackboard live instruction as well as experiment procedures or multimedia.

The second group used as its medium something I’ve been referring to a lot with both my patients and professional groups (like commercial airline pilots), which is the concept of deliberate practice.

If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers you’ll recall he refers to the length of time it takes to reach expert status (10,000 hours), and how it is best achieved through this concept of deliberate practice.

The Times, in reporting on the article, offers a link not to the original article, but to ScienceNow article at by Jeffrey Mervis.

Let me offer you a quote from that piece which helps illustrate the concept of deliberate practice as applied by the researchers:

The research, appearing online today in Science, was conducted by a team at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Vancouver, in Canada, led by physics Nobelist Carl Wieman. First at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and now at an eponymous science education initiative at UBC, Wieman has devoted the past decade to improving undergraduate science instruction, using methods that draw upon the latest research in cognitive science, neuroscience, and learning theory.

In this study, Wieman trained a postdoc, Louis Deslauriers, and a graduate student, Ellen Schelew, in an educational approach, called “deliberate practice,” that asks students to think like scientists and puzzle out problems during class. For 1 week, Deslauriers and Schelew took over one section of an introductory physics course for engineering majors, which met three times for 1 hour. A tenured physics professor continued to teach another large section using the standard lecture format.

Unable to tell you quite yet how this teaching was actually carried out, the ScienceNow article alludes to a much more interactive, problem-solving method, rather than, “here are the facts I want you to remember and regurgitate for the test.”

If you’ve attended a Presentation Magic workshop, you’ll know how much interactivity and playful questioning I employ to eventually lead you to inescapable (and thus memorable) conclusions.

What were the results of the experiment? Once more, ScienceNow:

The results were dramatic: After the intervention, the students in the deliberate practice section did more than twice as well on a 12-question multiple-choice test of the material as did those in the control section. They were also more engaged—attendance rose by 20% in the experimental section, according to one measure of interest—and a post-study survey found that nearly all said they would have liked the entire 15-week course to have been taught in the more interactive manner.

This is quite a contrast to the excuses I hear from academics who struggle with the extra work my way of instructing asks of them, who tell me their students want them to lecture by Powerpoint because it helps them. My reposte is that it helps the students to slacken off, and that it’s not the students’ responsibility to tell lecturers how they best learn, but to be informed by experts in their field how to best take on board their profession’s means and methods.

In thinking about the outcome, the senior researcher was quoted:

“It’s almost certainly the case that lectures have been ineffective for centuries. But now we’ve figured out a better way to teach” that makes students an active participant in the process, Wieman says. Cognitive scientists have found that “learning only happens when you have this intense engagement,” he adds. “It seems to be a property of the human brain.”



Jere Confrey, an education researcher at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, said the value of the study goes beyond the impressive exam results. “It provides evidence of the benefits of increasing student engagement in their own learning,” she says. “It’s not just gathering data that matters but also using it to generate relevant discussion of key questions and issues.” She also notes that “the attendance results remind us of the importance of providing the right opportunities to learn.”

The Times article by Benedict Carey here casts some doubts on the enthusiasm of some who’ve witnessed the published outcome and reasoning:

Yet experts who reviewed the new report cautioned that it was not convincing enough to change teaching. The study has a variety of limitations, they said, some because of the difficulty of doing research in the dude-I-slept-through-class world of the freshman year of college, and others because of the study’s design. “The whole issue of how to draw on basic science and apply it in classrooms is a whole lot more complicated than they’re letting on,” said Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia.

Dr. Willingham said that, among other concerns, the study was not controlled enough to tell which of the changes in teaching might have accounted for the difference in students’ scores…

Experts said, too, that it was problematic for authors of a study to also be delivering the intervention — in this case, as enthusiastic teachers. “This is not a good idea, since they know exactly what the hypotheses are that guide the study, and, more importantly, exactly what the measures are that will be used to evaluate the effects,” said James W. Stigler, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, in an e-mail. “They might, therefore, be tailoring their instruction to the assessment — i.e., teaching to the test.”

I urge you to read both these sources if you are tired of your current attempts at knowledge transfer and think about shifting from a traditional, socially-normed means of presenting to something more evidence-based.

It’s an irony that when I apply to psychology conferences to present my work on presentation skills (I’m appearing at the APA Convention in Washington DC in August employing presentation magic to explore IT for psychologists) I advocate that psychologists value their evidence base to convince governments and insurers of their evidence base. But when they present their research, they conform to Powerpoint standards of information delivery: distinctly unscientific.

Thus I’m amused to read the conclusion of the Times article, where finally, a psychologist “gets it”:

Either way, Dr. Stigler said, the study is an important step in a journey that is long overdue, given the vast shortcomings of education as usual. “I think that the authors are pioneers in exploring and testing ways we can improve undergraduate teaching and learning,” he said. “As a psychologist, I’m ashamed that it is physicists who are leading this effort, and not learning scientists.”

(Coda: If you are intrigued by the concept of deliberate practice applied to various professions, the text of choice is that edited by the doyen of the field, Karl Anders Ericsson, entitled Development of Professional Expertise: Toward Measurement of Expert Performance and Design of Optimal Learning Environments, available at Amazon here.)

Even the US President has learnt how to use multimedia to get a humorous message across (at the White House Correspondents’ dinner)

Before I continue with part 2 of my series on scientists and others presenting, a short distraction featuring the US President, Barak Obama at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner, April 30 in Washington.

These are usually fun events no matter which party is in power, and offers the incumbent an opportunity to show what a good fellow he is, usually poking fun at himself, and perhaps a few others worthy of retort.

This year, Obama played on the birther issue and whether he was really an American, and to his good fortune, the most recent doubter of celebrity status, Donald Trump, was in the audience.

Upon being introduced to the attendees, an old World Wrestling Enterntainment soundtrack, “I’m a real American” was played, this being Hulk Hogan’s anthem.

From there, the graphics displayed harmonised with the music, including a bopping enlargement of Obama’s birth certificate, something one can easily do in both Powerpoint and Keynote using the scale animations timed to match the sounds.

I can’t imagine too many other times you’d use this element to good effect, but it seems to work here.

Notice too, if you stay with the video, how Obama also incorporates other videos (The Lion King) to humorous effect to make his point about his origins.

It seems to me this relatively young President is showing he is au fait with new technologies and the need to engage audiences with multimedia, despite his being quite the orator, and raconteur. Some lessons to be learnt here, no doubt.

I don’t know what software was used to create the piece, but perhaps now that Obama carries with him an iPad, he may insist that any slideshows conducted in his presence are done with Keynote! That’d be one way to tell the military brass around him who is really Commander-in-Chief.

Here’s the video via YouTube, below. Enjoy!