PowerPoint vs. flipcharts: Which should you use?

Will your audience be more engaged by PowerPoint slides or a flipchart? Perhaps you don’t need any visuals at all. This author weighs the options.

I’m not a fan of PowerPoint or any other slide software—especially when they feature long bulleted lists that benefit the speaker more than the audience.

I am a fan of flipcharts and whiteboards—I write as I go. Perhaps it’s my bias as a former university teacher, but I like writing, and eschew pre-packaged slides.

I’ve seen slide decks from Seth Godin and Josh Linkner that I thought were beautiful accompaniments to their speeches. The slides featured either gorgeous pictures or funny commentaries on what the speaker was saying.

And I’ve long been a fan of Garr Reynolds‘ slides (he’s the author of the classic design book “Presentation Zen“) and those of Nancy Duarte, author of several excellent books, including “Slideology” and “Resonate.” Both Reynolds and Duarte advocate good storytelling and minimally intrusive slides that support the storyline in elegant—usually pictorial—ways.

But my model is Bill Clinton. You don’t see him using slides, do you? It’s the same with Simon Sinek—no slides, just a flipchart.

As a boy I attended a summer camp in the wilds of northern Vermont, Camp Flying Cloud. I attended the camp when it was just starting, and helped build the buildings even as we stayed in them.

The camp director was unforgettable. He would show up at all-camp pow-wows from time to time. We’d light a big fire, have dinner and sit around the campfire talking the night away. When the moment was right, the director would tell adventure stories about trappers and Native Americans that thrilled my 12-year-old imagination.

I never forgot him or the stories. He had a rare skin disease that caused his skin to hang in loose folds all over his body. Of course we found that fascinating, but he made you forget about it when he launched one of his stories.

He didn’t have slides or a flipchart—just storytelling.

Good storytelling conjures up far more thrilling pictures than PowerPoint can show.

There’s a study that suggests I may be on to something. Zakary Tormal, a Stanford University Graduate School of Business professor, tested three presentation styles in a recent study: the bullet-points-and-stock-photography slide deck style I often decry, the Zen style Reynolds and Duarte favor, and the whiteboard style. He didn’t test a no-visuals-at-all style, but perhaps that’s coming.

To my surprise, there was no difference in favorability, comprehension and retention between the PowerPoint and Zen styles. The whiteboard style, however, outscored both by about 10 percent. That’s more than the small study’s margin of error.

If you want to increase your talks’ positive reception and your audiences’ comprehension and retention, put down that clicker and go to the board or flipchart.

Let’s hope the professor tests a no-slides style. I want to know if my camp director and Clinton have the right idea, or if a whiteboard does in fact improve retention over “Once upon a time …”

Think of the most memorable speech you’ve heard and seen. What tools did it employ? Did its memorability depend solely on the storyteller?

A version of this article originally appeared on Public Words.

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