Home > Speaking > Ditch the laser pointer for good.

Ditch the laser pointer for good.

Update, March 2013: What I’ve learned about this technique is that it requires meticulous practice. You need to internalize exactly when you will make your transitions and sync your clicker hand to your speech. When you don’t have a lot of time to practice, the alternative is to simplify your slides to the point where there are only 1 to 3 items that need pointing out.

If you’re giving a slide presentation (typically, with PowerPoint), never again use a laser pointer. I will offer a solution/alternative later in this post, but first, let me explain why laser pointers are bad:

– To use the pointer, you have to look at your slide to ensure that it is hitting the correct spot. As you describe the item you’re pointing at, you end up speaking at the wall rather than to the audience.

– If one hand is committed to the laser pointer, you are forced into an awkward posture and can’t gesture naturally with your hands.

– The “transition” between speaking to the audience, turning to point, and then turning back is inherently choppy. And on top of that, someone in the audience likely fails to see the laser pointer (gets distracted, too much glare, etc) and misses the point of the slide entirely.

I was inspired to write this post after I attended a talk where the speaker was turned 90 degrees away from the audience the entire time he spoke, even when there weren’t slides to point at with the laser pointer. He had turned to use the laser pointer, and never turned back to face the audience!

If you feel that you need to use a laser pointer, I am guessing that you have TOO MUCH CONTENT on that slide. So, declutter. Cut through the auxiliary info and figure out what your most important message is, and focus on that one message on that slide. Plenty of people who write about how to make effective presentations have advice on how to declutter your slides (fyi, each of those links is to a different guide).

Two alternative solutions to the laser pointer

Even after you’ve decluttered your slides, you might have some important idea that requires the audience to consider multiple graphics at once. Here are two approaches to use that will allow you to remain engaged with and facing the audience.

[1] Highlight the data set. In this example, the presenter showed data for several countries. Japan and South Korea lead the pack, but since the presentation focused on South Korea, the bar for South Korea is a different color from the other countries’ bars. With this simple modification, the presenter automatically guides the audience’s eyes to the important data without having to point at it.

(Image from Presentation Zen)

[2] Build animated pointers. This is something I used for my PhD defense presentation. I had a slide with 3 different graphs that I wanted the audience to be able to see continuously. As I discussed the first graph, a big arrow pointed to the graph. When I started discussing the second graph, I clicked and the arrow pointed to the second graph. And so on, for the third graph.

How to make it: Create an arrow pointing at the first graph. Give the arrow an animation to appear when you click as you talk about the first graph. You can then give this arrow an animation to move to the second graph upon clicking. Or you can give it an animation to disappear and have a new arrow appear at the second graph. You have a lot of flexibility in how you want to execute this concept. (My example can be downloaded here.) This concept requires more effort than simply highlighting a data set, but done correctly, it allows presenters to walk an audience through multiple graphics without ever turning around and breaking their flow.

One might argue that, instead of using these animated pointers, I could have simply labeled the specific locations in each of those graphs as J, K, and L. This approach is simpler, but requires the presenter to say “Looking at J…” and it’s possible for someone in the audience to miss the verbal transition. By having a pointer fixed on the image being discussed, everyone in the room knows where to look.

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  1. July 27, 2010 at 4:25 pm

    The only problem I see with this is fielding questions. For example, I work with a fairly complicated instrument. If one of my presentations required a slide of the instrument, and someone had questions about it afterwards, it would be useful to use the laser pointer to specify the parts of the instrument in question.

    • saad a. hasan
      July 28, 2010 at 7:15 am

      Good point. Would the parts be labeled already, or just indicated with different colors? How about an exploded view diagram?

      Alright, keep your laser pointer in your back pocket for the just-in-case scenarios 🙂

  2. Danielle
    July 27, 2010 at 5:30 pm

    Enjoyed your post, Saad. As always, this is great information!

    • saad a. hasan
      July 28, 2010 at 7:16 am

      Thanks, Danielle. Do let me know if you ever try out any of the techniques I’ve written about, and how it works for you.

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