Is PowerPoint good or evil? This is the question that spurred the development of the distinction between Ballroom and Conference Room style presentations. Sooper kept track of the PowerPoint debate (for a while). For our purposes, all you need to know is that the experts – and the research – are divided on whether PowerPoint helps or hurts communication (although if you would like to know more, see Advanced Presentations by Design, p. 90-93).
I think that the reason the experts disagree is that they are talking at cross-purposes: they are talking about entirely different types of presentation. To understand this, it helps to understand the idea of presentation idiom. A presentation idiom is a form of expression with an associated set of design principles. I call the two main types of presentation idiom Ballroom style and Conference Room style. Ballroom style presentations are what most typical PowerPoint presentations are trying to be: colorful, vibrant, attention-grabbing, and (sometimes) noisy. They typically take place in a large, dark room—such as a hotel ballroom. Conference room style presentations are more understated: they have less color, with more details on each page; they are more likely to be on printed handouts than projected slides, and they are more suited to your average corporate conference room.
The biggest single mistake that presenters make—and the root cause of the PowerPoint debate—is confusing the two idioms, and particularly, using ballroom style where conference room style is more appropriate. Almost all PowerPoint presentations are given using ballroom style—yet most of the time presentation conditions call for conference room style. Ballroom style is appropriate for where the objective is to inform, impress, and/or entertain a large audience and where the information flow is largely expected to be one-way (presenter to audience). Conference room style presentations are more suited to meetings where the objective is to engage, persuade, come to some conclusion, and drive action. This covers any presentation where you want your audience to do something differently as a result of your presentation. It includes: making recommendations; selling; training; communicating the implications of research; and raising funds. Information flow in this idiom is expected to be two-way—it’s more interactive.
From this perspective, the critics of PowerPoint condemn—correctly—the use of ballroom style presentations in situations that need conference room style presentations, while its defenders uphold the use of ballroom style presentations in situations where they are appropriate. Therefore, in a sense, both are correct.
Read more on the difference between Ballroom and Conference Room style presentations, and how to do each well. Also read about how to combat fear of public speaking using conference room style presentations.