No, Your Flipchart and Overhead Are Not Obsolete

Old standbys such as transparencies and flipcharts make a wonderful change of pace—they are high touch in presentations that otherwise might be too high tech.

I got a letter from a graduate student the other day. It complimented my “Master Trainers Handbook,” which she is using as a text in one of her graduate courses.

She did have a suggestion, though: The section on visuals needs revising. The detailed information on preparing overhead transparencies ought to go, she suggested, in favor of a section on “How to Develop PowerPoint Screens.” (Note: This is now in an appendix).

She’s right—and she’s wrong.

It’s true that more people are preparing and using computer pre­sentations. But that doesn’t mean we’re better at designing graphic displays.

If we’re not careful, our PowerPoint shows can be just as bor­ing, unintelligible, and distracting as the old transparencies, slides, and flipcharts they displaced.

Usual Guidelines Apply

All the guidelines about slides and overhead apply to computer screens, as well:

  • No more than five words per line.
  • No more than six lines per visual.
  • No more than three colors per visual (ideally, just two) unless you’re using photos.
  • Be visual. If you’re attempting to appeal visually to your audience, do so in ways that reward the eye.
  • One idea per visual.

You get the idea. These are guidelines that apply to the computer-based presentations of today as well as they did to the slide shows of 1979. You may have a similar list of your own. Don’t toss it out.

Here are a few things that to add to that list when your presentation goes high-tech:

  • Use animation as a change of pace, not as a steady diet.
  • Make sure the medium supports the message. Don’t use so many bells and whistles that people don’t get your essential message.
  • Be careful about the use of sound, especially sound effects that just dress up the presentation but don’t have real relevance. Err on the side of silence.

Overheads Still Work

Technology is great. I work hard to incorporate it judi­ciously into my presentations. It creates new presentation possibilities that I would never have thought possible when I embarked on this career.

But that doesn’t mean transparencies are obsolete. Our “Creative Training Techniques Handbook” is used all over the world today. Many people outside the United States don’t use computer presentations as often as we might think. In some places, they don’t even have access to com­puters for program design, let alone delivery.

Moreover, in the U.S., many users of the handbook are educators who teach with overheads in their classrooms. Their schools simply can’t afford to equip every class­room with a playback unit and computer.

Then there’s the matter of backups. More than once, my overheads have saved me when computer glitches weren’t fixed in time.

High Touch vs. High Tech

Even if high-tech presentation capability is available and functioning, transparencies and flipcharts still hold their own. They make a wonderful change of pace, even if you are using the computer as your primary presentation medium. It’s high touch in presentations that are other­wise too high tech.

If you want to move from the “lecture” feel to an inti­mate impression that “it’s just you and me talking here,” step over to the flipchart and start taking input from participants.

Consider my four T’s for flipcharts:

Turn to the audience as you write.

Touch various parts of the chart as you comment.

Tear off the chart when you’re done.

Tape it to the wall as a permanent reminder of key con­tent throughout the class.

It’s easy to see how a simple flipchart actually accom­plishes things a computer can’t.

Often, we’ll have participants do a “gallery walk” to start the second day of a multiple-day seminar. In small groups, they start with one chart and discuss its meaning and how to apply the contents. Then they move on to the next, just as they might from painting to painting in an art gallery. In five to 10 minutes they’ve revisited the contents of the entire previous day—using a medium some people shrug off as outdated.

So let’s think through the visuals we’re using—not only the content and format, but also the medium. I’m sure you’ll find plenty of use for the old standbys.