Yes, Online PowerPoints Really ARE a Bad Idea

In response to my recent article in which I begged people to please stop posting PowerPoint and other kinds of electronic slide presentations online, Heather Davis of John Snow, Inc. (which offers research and training on healthcare issues), commented:

“I don’t agree that PowerPoints online are a bad idea. The audience of the website I manage benefits from many of the graphs and charts that are included in our PowerPoints. Often these files contain the meat of massive studies done in the field and that users want to know about in shortened form. Also, when you are targeting a particular group of users, PowerPoints can be useful because you are already speaking within a defined context. Our users can read the shorthand of PowerPoints that have to do with the burning issues in our industry.”

…That sounds like a good argument, and I do appreciate that Heather stood up to voice a contrary opinion. I wanted to see what she was talking about, so I looked at some of the presentations available on JSI.com. (They’re not indexed in any one place, but you can find a lot of them by searching Google for: powerpoint site:jsi.com. You can actually do that in the CONTENTIOUS search engine on this page – just enter that search string, select the “WWW” option, and click “Google Search.”)

Now that I’ve looked through a few JSI.com online PowerPoint presentations, I must reconfirm my earlier point: I just don’t think PowerPoint presentations work well on the Web. The JSI.com presentations do contain a great deal of valuable information, and I agree that with complex topics such as healthcare it helps to have “shorthand” references. But PowerPoint slides are definitely not the best format choice.

I’d like to ask Heather whether her company has considered repackaging the information from those slides into formats that are (a) less awkward for Web users to access and read, and (b) less dependent on the live talk for clarity…

For instance, at a bare minimum the content (text and images) of a slide presentation could be repackaged onto an ordinary Web page. Having to download and page through slides represents an unnecessary burden to the reader, in my opinion.

Even better, that repackaged information could be edited to make more sense when viewed apart from the live presentation. Key context or points that the speaker offered verbally, but which do not appear on the slides, could be added.

For example, look at the presentation Contraceptive Security in Indonesia. (Note: That link goes directly to a PowerPoint file.) Slide #6 says:

GOVERNMENT COMMITMENT

Government Policies:
– Support population’s rights to FP services
– Ensure accessible & affordable contraceptives
– Signal stakeholder involvement

Essential for achieving contraceptive security

…Yes, that’s useful information – but it lacks the context that was probably supplied by the speaker.

The obvious questions that comes up for me about this slide are: “So how is the Indonesian government doing with regard to these issues? Are these measures already being fully implemented? Is there some progress in this direction? None? Is the Indonesian government actively resisting these measures?”

It wouldn’t take much added text to infuse the content of this presentation with such important context. You wouldn’t need to go into a lot of detail; just add enough context to answer obvious questions for people who didn’t attend, or who don’t recall clearly, the live presentation.

That’s all I’m saying.

Yes, I do understand that the target audience for JSI’s presentations already know the issues and jargon of the healthcare industry. I don’t doubt that they can understand much of the “shorthand” of these slides. Still, there’s a difference between people understanding issues and acronyms, and being able to intuit key points or context when that information is not directly supplied.

For instance, as a journalist and editor I’ve covered energy and environmental issues for more than a decade. I know those topics well. Yet most online PowerPoint presentations I see on those topics leave me with major questions – not about the acronyms or issues, but about just exactly which points the speaker was trying to make!

I don’t doubt that JSI’s clients and other online audience get value from the information contained in these presentations. But I do think there would be much greater benefit to putting that information in a more Web-friendly format and filling in the missing bits of context. I’d be curious whether JSI has tried this approach, or would consider trying it. I’d be even more curious to know how their clients and other online audiences would react to getting this valuable information differently.

…I want to make it clear that I am not trying to trash Heather’s content efforts, and I appreciate and respect her opinion. JSI’s presentations appear to be interesting and useful. I don’t doubt they were very successful when given as live talks. Also, much of the content on the JSI.com site appears to be in pretty good shape. I simply think that JSI’s presentations would work much better in a different format, and with some re-editing to supply needed context.

7 thoughts on Yes, Online PowerPoints Really ARE a Bad Idea

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  1. Well, this is an interesting debate about PowerPoints online. In an ideal world, yes we would repackage the slides with more context and make them available as plain old HTML. And I often do convert PowerPoints to HTML. However, the reality is that we do not have the staff or time to convert these presentations and add context. It is useful to have the presentations posted on our site (deliver.jsi.com)for people who attended the talks. Also, if you provide contact information, users can read about a topic and then get in touch with authors for more information. We will continue to post slides for these reasons. We will try to convert them to HTML or PDFs and provide speakers notes whenever possible. By the way, I am the web editor for the DELIVER project website (a JSI project) not for JSI itself. I don’t speak for the web staff at JSI.

  2. Damian wrote below:

    “You need powerpoint to view powerpoint presentations.”

    Actually, no. You can open PowerPoint presentations in most other presentation software packages.

    One free open-source program is “Impress,” the presentation application within the OpenOffice Suite — which is what I happen to use. I don’t even have PowerPoint on my computer.

    You can download OpenOffice at: http://www.openoffice.org

    – Amy Gahran
    Editor, CONTENTIOUS

  3. You need powerpoint to view powerpoint presentations.

    Powerpoint costs money.

    To make someone pay money to view your online content is WRONG WRONG WRONG.

    No debate.

    Don’t care about anything else.

    It’s wrong.

    Really.

    Just wrong.

    Also, it offers NOTHING over HTML that I can see.

    Nothing at all.

    IMHO, as ever.

  4. There’s another more fundamental problem with that slide you reference about government policy in Indonesia – is the slide saying the government *does* those things, or is the slide saying the government *should do* those things but doesn’t? Without the context of the spoken presentation, it can be very easy to misread bullet points.

  5. I agree with your points about the use of PowerPoint and generally have no idea why people would like copies of a presentation as the slides are largely useless without the accompanying commentary.

    However, if people are going to put PowerPoint on the web, they could at least publish it to a web format for online viewing (you can do this within PowerPoint). Failing that, they should convert it to PDF as there is no guarantee that potential readers will have PowerPoint installed on their PC. Far more people have Acrobat Reader, however.

  6. For the most part, I agree that offering Powerpoint Slides for download are a pain to download etc. and are of limited value because of the missing narrative content (although this can be made available by the author in the scripting portion of PowerPoint). But, from my speaking engagement experience, attendees ALWAYS ask for a copy of the PowerPoints…And I say “give the customers what they want.”

    With that said, I think more people/presenters should look at using products like “Visual Communicator” (http://seriousmagic.com/ This product enhances PowerPoint by its ability to add live video, sound/voice & special effects to your PowerPoint presentations. The highly compressed .ASF (Active Streamimg Format) output file works with Microsoft’s Media Player and can be accessed directly from a company website, downloaded for local/disconnected use or distributed via CD or DVD.