Monday, April 20, 2009

A Conference Without PowerPoint?

My quixotic quest for adding some more zip to museum conferences by subtracting PowerPoint (or at least really lame PowerPoint --- like reading off your bullet points...) from the equation looks like it's starting to bear fruit. I started instigating a year ago with a posting on ExhibiTricks before the Denver museum conferences (see the original blog entry below.)

Here's an update from some recent events: I'm happy to report that the recent MAAM "Creating Exhibitions" conference had a large number (a majority?) of non-computerized presentations that actually fostered conversation and interaction amongst the participants.

For those of you heading to Philadelphia next week for this year's ACM and AAM conferences, the fine folks from ACM allowed Peter Exley and myself to host an officially sanctioned Pecha Kucha event on Monday, April 27th from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. in the "Philadelphia Ballroom" on the Mezzanine level of the Sheraton Philadelphia City Center located at 17th and Race Street. If you're registered for ACM, come join us! (Did I mention Cash Bar?)

I also hear rumblings that ASTC will be holding some Pecha Kucha and other alternative presentation formats at this year's conference in Fort Worth.

I don't suppose we'll ever get the "Museums and the Web" folks to release their death grips on their laptops and LCD projectors, but at least we're off to a good start with moving beyond talking head PowerPoint presentations at some of the other museum conferences...

Soon two of the big museum conferences, The Association of Children's Museums (ACM) and The American Association of Museums (AAM) will be taking place. And many, if not most, of the presenters at both these conferences will be packing a laptop loaded with PowerPoint presentations.

Even if each of these PowerPoint presentations is able to start smoothly without technical glitches involving projectors, connectors, and software, usually a big IF, I'll ask the question many of the folks trapped in the conference rooms will be thinking: "Why are some of the most creative people in the world using such powerful computer technology to present such boring, non-interactive speeches?"

Honestly, when is the last time you did something more at a conference presentation than sit on your fanny and stare at the screen and speakers on the dais for 75 minutes or so before the moderator apologizes for running long and leaves only time for one or two audience questions, if any? Most of the time, the talks could have easily been given, and often greatly improved, by eliminating PowerPoint.

Couldn't we just BAN PowerPoint from Conference Presentations?

Lest you think I'm a raving Luddite, I happily embrace computers and technology in all facets of the museum world, but I just think that the staid PowerPoint approach stifles creative presentations and dialogue between conference participants. (And, after all, even such eminent thinkers as David Byrne and Edward Tufte have wildly different takes on the topic.)

Even if you don't believe the museum world is ready to go "cold turkey" on PowerPoint, there are less drastic alternatives.

Mary Case, of Qm2, put me onto a short WIRED magazine article (and video example, seen at the top of this posting) about a presentation technique called "Pecha Kucha." As the article notes, pecha kucha (Japanese for "chatter") applies a simple set of rules to presentations: exactly 20 slides displayed for 20 seconds each. That's it. Say what you need to say in six minutes and 40 seconds of exquisitely matched words and images and then sit the hell down. As a quick Google search indicates, pecha kucha is catching on around the world. Why not give it a try at museum conferences to wean us off of bloated corporate-style presentations?

Another way to open up the conference format to alternative presentation styles may be as simple as "A Day Without PowerPoint". Pick one day during the conference that ALL presentations must be done without PowerPoint (or similar computer tools like KeyNote, for those trying to weasel around the ban!) Add a check box on the conference proposal forms that allows session chairs and participants to indicate their willingness to present sans PowerPoint and go from there. As a bonus, you get monetary and environmental gains from eliminating the projectors and associated technologies from the conference sessions for one day.

So, I beg all of you filling out evaluation forms at ACM or AAM to write "A Day Without PowerPoint" on each one you turn in, or better yet look for ways to eliminate PowerPoint from YOUR next talk!

Have some presentation tips or tricks you'd like to share? Let us know in the "Comments Section" below.

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  1. We are really looking forward to your PK session at ACM! You are absolutely right, there will be a PK session at ASTC in Fort Worth! It is called Pecha Kucha Design and here is the summary:

    In museums, everyone—from visionaries, directors, and architects to education, marketing, and development staff to visitors themselves—is part of the design process. This extended, fast-moving session will follow the Pecha Kucha format, an innovative concept from the architecture field in which audiences are exposed rapidly to multiple viewpoints about design and its impact. Limited to 20 images at 20 seconds each, 20 presenters will focus on different ways that design can enrich our science community. Hope to see you there!

  2. At some NASA meetings for informal science educators a few years ago, I was introduced to the term "Death by PowerPoint." Things haven't improved recently either. Kudos for bringing up the subject.

  3. Seems that you missed all of the alternate format sessions at Museums and the Web (MW2009) this year, including many hands-on pre-conference workshops, 24+ unconference sessions (first day) that were pitched in a plenary, mini-workshops that involved hands-on work and conversation, a live Usability Lab, a live design Crit Room, BoF breakfasts for networking, 40+ Museum Demonstrations for an up-close view of other museum sites, and a closing plenary session that was totally open mike.

    there was also a lively backchannel that bridged the site and the people who couldn't attend (check out the #mw2009 twitter feed for example). we used those LCD projectors to show the 'twitterfall' in both the opening and closing plenaries [kudos to Max Anderson, the only museum director i can think of who would be game for such openness].

    but face up to it, some things deserve the permanence of a written paper and a good, well-chaired panel with questions can build connections between work taking place in different institutions [and on different continents]. don't kill the format because some speakers can't move beyond bullet points.

    we need to find presentation formats that fit the message, and mix up the schedule to keep everyone engaged.

    [MW2009 co-chair]

    ps. check our the MW presentation guidelines at

  4. Thanks J for your clarifications regarding the MW conference. I happily stand corrected.

  5. the reality is that these kinds of sessions are confusing and sometimes even threatening to a significant number of delegates. Friday at MW has always been a less formal day (since 1997), and every year we have some complaints from people who can't stand the choice... and kudos from some people who love it. that's why we've settled on variety.


  6. The problem is not powerpoint/keynote, but how it is used. If the medium is reduced to reading bullets out loud, then yes... yawn, yawn, yawn. But it is a great and very versatile medium if cartoons, videos and images augment and illustrate what you are saying, rather than repeating what you are saying! Diana Issidorides / NEMO, Amsterdam