Visual support for the spoken word

How can I know what I've said until I see what I'm saying.?

Visual communication has both a verbal component - usually visual presentation of the written word - and an illustrative component such as drawings, diagrams, photos, and charts. Although both elements have long received attention in the context of the primary research article, scientific writing instruction has tended to treat other avenues of visual communication as a relatively minor afterthought. The implicit assumption has been that oral presentations and posters, for example, involve only minor repackaging of a written document and its supporting graphics. In recent years, however, this assumption has been challenged by new developments that have increased the status of visual communication and given it a surprisingly powerful role to play in modern scientific exchanges.

First, there is an increased understanding that when people look at a visual pattern, they process it differently than text (Gurak, 2000). Humans read each word of text and decipher it, but they quickly and efficiently perceive visual information as a unit. (How many times have you tried to assemble something and after puzzling over the written instructions, found yourself turning to the diagram.)

Second, communication has become increasingly international, with the outcome that science and technology must be accessible to people across a variety of languages. The use of symbols rather than written words can make concepts understandable around the world. At the same time, web publishing has given visual communication much greater force and international presence.

Last, but equally important, graphics are no longer the domain of paid specialists. Visual materials have become easy and inexpensive to produce, and in response, people tend to use them more. Presentation software makes it relatively straightforward to generate graphics that once took hours or days to create.

As a consequence, visual communication has become a basic part of almost all effective scientific presentations. With this widespread use, there has come the realization that while in some ways, the process of choosing and using visual aids is the same regardless of whether they will support a written or a spoken text, in other ways, it differs markedly.

ORAL PRESENTATIONS

PowerPoint is both the most professional and the most boring means of giving a presentation. (There is an interesting contradiction to be explored here.)

From time to time you undoubtedly will be called upon to make an oral presentation to colleagues, administrators, or a general audience outside your special area of expertise. Nearly every such presentation uses some type of visual aid. Traditionally the most popular has been the 35-mm slide, followed by overhead transparencies, flipcharts, films, videotapes, and even filmstrips and the old schoolroom standard, the chalkboard or marker-board.

Increasingly, oral presentations are being accompanied by computer-based visuals, and several excellent supporting software programs now exist. By far the most popular of these at present is Microsoft PowerPoint®, which is estimated to have at least 250-400 million users around the globe (Alley and Neeley, 2005b).

It is difficult to overstate the impact that PowerPoint has had upon presentations in academia, business, and professional societies, where it now is being used to make an estimated 20-30 million presentations every day Few scientists have escaped becoming familiar with the now nearly universal PowerPoint slide: a phrase headline supported by a bulleted list. In fact, the name PowerPoint is rapidly becoming a generic synonym for bulleted lists and "presentations." Part of the program's popularity is undoubtedly the ease with which the default templates allow a busy person to construct and deliver an outline-style talk.

In response to this popularity, we'll concentrate on electronic presentation software in this chapter. However, we'll also remind you of alternatives and present some background on a PowerPoint controversy that has arisen.

Media choices for oral presentations

Oral presentations come in many forms, from a simple classroom talk at the chalkboard to a glitzy multimedia computer-based presentation accompanied by abundant handouts and web-based video clips. The world's current fascination with technology has led presenters inexorably toward presentation software. However, it is important to realize that other options continue to be available, and for some situations may still be a better choice.

In fact, the very popularity of PowerPoint has raised problems. Presentations can be so predictable and generic that for the audience, all presentations begin to look and feel the same. Everyone present is lulled into complacency, including the speaker. When PowerPoint takes front-and-center stage in a presentation, a speaker easily can lose the opportunity to connect with his or her audience. At one time or another, probably all of us have had the sense that the text-dominated slides in such a presentation are serving more as notes for the speaker than as aids for our own understanding. When full sentences are projected on the screen (Fig. 4.1) while the speaker reads them verbatim, the results can be especially deadly.

Additional problems have arisen as speakers stretch the limits of this presentation software, trying to use a single set of slides not only as speaker's notes and

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