19 August 2009

PowerPoint and the demise of Chalk & Talk: (2) The lost art

A warm welcome to anyone who's arrived here via the link on today's BBC website - in which case you're probably interested in speaking and presentation. If so, that's what this blog is mostly about, and you can see a list of (and link to) everything that's been posted here since Gordon Brown's party conference speech last year by clicking HERE.

As this is the second in a series of three posts marking 25 years of PowerPoint, you might like to look first at the previous post on 'The beginning of the end'. And, if you haven't already seen it, you might also like see the short piece on today's
BBC website.

1. A more ‘natural’ form of communication
One of the great advantages of chalk and talk is that there is something very natural about it: unlike speaking from slides, it has a close parallel in everyday life. We’re very used to showing others where a place is by drawing a map on a scrap of paper; sometimes, we’ll sketch out a diagram to explain what something looks like or how it works.

Chalk and talk simply extends the practice of writing on the back of an envelope to the bigger canvas of a large vertical surface that everyone can see. But the lack of an everyday equivalent of speaking from slides makes it a more contrived and less natural form of communication.

2. Less interference with eye-contact
Slides also have negative side effects that make it more difficult for presenters to hold the attention of audiences, central among which is the serious disruption of eye-contact. This is partly because speakers spend so much time looking at the screen, and partly because audiences have to keep glancing from speaker to screen and back again for however long the presentation lasts.

With chalk and talk, these repeated breaches in eye-contact are less of a problem – for the very obvious reason that you are never more than an arm’s length away from whatever it is you are showing to your audience.

3. Better coordination between the talk and the visual aid
Speaking about what you’re putting on the board while you’re doing it more or less guarantees that there’ll be a very close connection between what you’re saying and what everyone is looking at – which makes it much easier for listeners to stay on track than when they have to read up and down lists, trying to find a connection between what they’re hearing and what they’re reading.

4. Protection from information overload
Of all the innovations that came with the arrival of slide-dependency the most disastrous was the ease with which you can project large amounts of detailed written and numerical information on to the screen, a practice based on the dubious assumption that people can readily absorb complex detail at a glance.

By contrast, chalk and talk protects audiences from being overwhelmed by such massive and painful information overload, because it forces speakers to develop their arguments step-by-step and at a comfortable pace that’s easy for listeners to follow and take in.

5. Spontaneity and authoritativeness
Writing things up as you go along also involves a degree of spontaneity, authoritativeness and liveliness that’s hardly ever achieved with slides. I’ve now asked hundreds of people how many really enthusiastic and inspiring slide-driven presentations they have seen, and most of them have trouble in coming up with a single example.

But with chalk and talk, whatever’s being written or drawn on the board is being done here and now for the sole benefit of everyone in the room, rather than being a pre-packaged list that’s been cooked up in advance and perhaps even been circulated beforehand. Unlike speakers who have to look at their slides before they know what to say next, someone using a board or flipchart has to be in full control of their material and can convey an air of confidence, authority and command over the subject matter that’s much more difficult to achieve when using slides as prompts.

(To be continued and concluded tomorrow in Part 3: 'Glimmers of hope').

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