Presentations are stereotyped. A speaker stands in front of an audience, uses PowerPoint to guide a talk and says very little that departs from the PowerPoint presentation. Frequently, the speaker provides a handout or electronic version of the PowerPoint as a record of the talk. Depending on the nature of the talk (lecture to students; conference presentation; talk to a business group), a few minutes may be left at the end for questions. Readers will recognize this format as being almost universal.
Stereotyped human behavior can be useful because it allows us to determine how to behave without having to continually invent new behaviors. Of course, stereotyped behavior is only useful if it is functional. If it is dysfunctional, it should be changed.
Eric Bergman believes that the procedures we habitually use during presentations are dysfunctional and badly need changing. As someone who has yet to listen to (or read!) a stimulating PowerPoint presentation, I find it very easy to agree that change is needed. However, the question becomes: How should we change?
This book provides us with an essential guide. While guides to any number of human activities are a dime-a-dozen, this one is different. Yes, readers may feel that the suggestions articulated here are a radical departure from what currently occurs, but how do we know it is any better than the stereotype? Bergman is clearly enthusiastic, but the changes he advocates are very large. Why should we make such large changes because he personally feels it would be an improvement?
In fact, the recommendations in this book reflect much more than the personal views of one author, albeit a very knowledgeable one. The various recommendations Bergman makes are based on strong research evidence he has brilliantly applied to the art of presenting information to a live audience.
This book is directed at practitioners rather than researchers. Therefore, it is inappropriate to discuss the research base of the book in detail; those details can be found elsewhere. For readers interested in the research base, however, and for those already familiar with cognitive load theory and its effects, here are some very brief pointers. The recommendation to not use PowerPoint as a visual version of a talk is based on the redundancy effect, as is the recommendation that answers to questions should be brief and to the point. The recommendation to allow questions during a talk rather than at the end is based on the temporal split-attention effect. The suggestion that talks should include sufficient pauses to allow an audience to think flows from cognitive load theory and its emphasis on a limited working memory, based on empirical findings associated with massed versus spaced practice.
The strong research base that underpins this book provides reassurance that the recommended techniques have been tested and actually do work in a variety of contexts. Readers should try these recommendations for themselves.
Currently, we use technology such as PowerPoint because we can, not because it results in improvements. I feel the evidence is overwhelming that the way in which we currently organize presentations is ineffective and inappropriate.
This well-written, fascinating book provides us with effective presentation techniques, rather than the ineffective ones that have arisen without sufficient thought or consideration of their consequences. Eric Bergman’s techniques are a window to the future of this important human activity.
John Sweller, Ph.D.
School of Education
University of New South Wales