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The Overhead Projector

post # 350 — April 10, 2007 — a Careers, Client Relations post

I have had some questions about why, in my videocasts, I am shown using an old-fashioned light-bulb overhead projector (OHP), even for presentations to large audiences. Some people ask whether it doesn’t present an unprofessional, out-of-date image.

To this day, in all my presentations, I ask for the overhead projector as a matter of choice, because it is the best technology I know to minimize the barrier between me and the audience.

By writing on blank plastic sheets with the projector, I can create “lists” in front of people, drawing the answers out from them, even if I already know what I want the list to contain. The session thus becomes more Socratic and interactive.

Even if I am not being so interactive, and am making my own points, the act of writing them down in front of people lends some drama and “theater” to the proceedings, allowing me to keep the presentation lively.

Contrast this with the all-too-common approach of having prepared slides, in a fixed order, and rigidly walking the audience through what you have decided they should listen to. That’s no way to “connect.”

A wise mentor once told me that, in making a presentation (or in teaching) you can focus on one of three things: your material (let’s get through this), yourself (ain’t I great?), or the audience (what do you want to ask about?)

Guess which is most valuable?

Which leads to the final virtue of the old-fashioned OHP: If someone in the audience asks “But what about this other perspective?”, you can quickly throw on to the OHP any prepared slides you have on the topic. You don’t need to scroll through tens (or hundreds) of computer based-Powerpoint slides to find the one you need.

An OHP and a collection of prepared plastic sheets allow you “random access” to your material, thereby enabling you to truly customize your remarks (and your performance) to the specific people in front of you.


Stephen Ruben said:

Please enter your comment

Here’s the problem. Like the highly qualified job candidate who shows up at the interview in a pair of jeans and a Grateful Dead, T shirt…impressions matter.

What impression what judgments are made about someone who appears at a talk with 1970’s technology?

Yes black & white movies can be rivetting but black and white TV is not.

Someone of David Maister’s prestige, skill and reputation may get away with appearing married to the 70’s but presenters like myself better be able to show up and create the best impression possible within the first thirty seconds or the audience is already on to thinking about what’s for lunch.

Not fair…but that’s show biz

posted on April 10, 2007

Andrew Mitchell said:


You’re in good company… Edward de Bono also uses an OHP and he sits down while doing so. For a photo and description, see http://www.anecdote.com.au/archives/2006/09/what_has_al_gor.html

Keep up the good work.


posted on April 10, 2007

Lisa Guinn said:

David, I am thrilled to see this posting. I am a professional technical trainer, and I have worked for several large Silicon Valley companies. When I was forced to give up the OHP for the slick PC projector, I know it diminished my teaching.

Years ago, I would routinely use 15-20 blank transpancies along with my prepared slides. In addition to using the blank slides as a “projected whiteboard,” I also used them as coversheets when annotating existing slides. The flexibility is essential to a dynamic interaction with the people in the room — and isnt’ that the most important thing?

I still hate having to flip through PowerPoint presentations to illustration the discussion as it is really happening (as opposed to how it was planned). But I refuse to stay on a sequential script when I see people thinking and learning.

The only problem with the OHP — it doesn’t work for webinars! In fact, one of the problems I have with live web-based presentations is that they are not flexible. If only there was a software tool that could do what the OHP can . . .

Thanks for all your insights — Lisa

posted on April 10, 2007

Hemang said:

How true. I am a PhD Candidate, and the lectures that connected with me did not use powerpoint as the principal means for information. The instructors would either write on the board or for only 10 minutes or so use a computer for a video. When I teach, I write on the board. The students and I will solve a problem in real-time. Of course, I will make a mistake at times but then the students are involved and THEY catch it. Sadly, powerpoint doesn’t allow to do so.

posted on April 10, 2007

ann michael said:


I couldn’t agree more. It amazes me that there hasn’t been some tool developed to capture that experience. I wonder if it isn’t possible on a tablet (or any laptop that has touch screen capabilities).


posted on April 11, 2007

John Labbe said:


I, too, am glad to hear that not everyone has abandoned learner-centered teaching in favor of the ease and manufacturability of electonic presentations. I’ve been a trainer for many years and even when I conduct the same workshop several times it’s never quite the same – and the variable is the audience, of course. If you aren’t focused primarily on their outcome, you’re not a teacher – you’re a used car salesman.

posted on April 11, 2007

daniel said:

one of my friends


posted on April 12, 2007

Will Swayne said:

Ah, a nice contrast between effective (but “outdated”) technology and ubiquitous technology.

I agree that there are certain areas where an OHP beats PowerPoint hands down (e.g. slides generated in real time).

Equally, there are no doubt situations where prepared slides form a more coherent presentations.

In 90% of the presentations I’ve seen over the last few years, there’s been some kind of technical hiccup with the laptop and/or PowerPoint. Granted, most of these have been minor, but it’s amazing how often it happens.

For the best results, why not use both and get the best of both worlds?

posted on April 12, 2007

Eric Christiansen said:

Sorry this is so late, but just got the chance to read your posting.

I know what you are saying, but there is technology you can use: TabletPC. The great thing is when you are done, you can email a copy of what you wrote down to whoever asks you.

posted on April 16, 2007

Michelle Golden said:

You make excellent points about connecting with the audience by incorporating what the audience is saying, thinking and needing to know. You’re right on with that being important for a truly productive session.

It is true that an OHP as an “electronic flipchart” is a lot easier for the audience to read than paper flipcharts at the front of a large room.

The commenter’s point about 1970’s technology (ouch, yes, it really is that old, isn’t it??) makes me think it wise to marry David’s purpose with modern technology. Here are some thoughts:

  • Powerpoint 2003 actually does have a writing feature which, if you make blank black or white slides, gives you a “whiteboard” feature you could use with a tablet mouse like Wacom Graphire (less than $100) and you can save your annotations (much less than a tablet PC) — you can write on populated slides, too, a la John Madden
  • Powerpoint 2007 (on Vista?) apparently offers a “presenter’s view” from which you can jump around your slides “behind the scenes” without your audience seeing you do it (per my friend is delighted with this new version that also lets you see presenter notes and a timer–I haven’t upgraded yet)

As a facilitator by nature myself, static Powerpoint presentations are too restrictive and linear. Use for graphical illustration can be enormously helpful, though. If at all possible, I avoid using it when I speak. When announcing that there will be no Powerpoint, it is unfailingly met with applause! If that isn’t telling that PPT usually bores audiences, I don’t know what is.

Also, somebody mentioned webinars. Webinar technology is still wonky and unreliable, but a lot of programs (Raindance, etc) have whiteboard capabilities. The trick is to use a mouse pen (like the Wacom Graphire) if you will be trying to write words or you can instead quickly open up a text box anywhere on the page and type into it–might be easier to read. Depends on typing speed though.

posted on May 5, 2007

Johan van Eeden said:

Ditto for me — apologies for being so late to add a comment.

I agree that any effort to minimize the creation of barriers between the audience and the presenter is worthwhile.

The age of the technology surely isn’t relevant? We use pencils and blackboards and flipcharts in many situations, and nobody pipes up, “Hey, why are you using that centuries-old pencil?”

I think it is possible to have the best of both worlds, and there is sometimes a need for both an OHP and a PC-based presentation in certain situations. As one contributer pointed out, it is possible to scribble on a PowerPoint slide. One could add blank pages at given points in the presentation for this specific purpose (or simply ALT-TAB to a prepared, blank presentation with several blank pages), and then use a tablet mouse to perform calculations, scribble notes based on audience input, whatever.

Finally, I want to point out that a PC presentation does not have to be linear. It can be every bit as hyperlinked and non-linear as any Web site or interactive learning module. Just do the following:

1) Place a “contents slide” at the start.

2) Hyperlink each item on the contents slide to the relevant slide in the presentation. (This is easy to do in PowerPoint.)

3) On each and every slide, add a link back to the contents slide (you could use a thumbnail of the content slide as a clickable “return to contents” icon at the bottom of each slide).

Bob’s your uncle. You can now navigate back and forth, and chop and change the order of your presentation at will, in real time.

posted on August 21, 2007