My quirky slide presentations.
Aaron Sloman

Every now and again I get comments on my slide presentations, some complimentary some critical. I am always ready to learn from the latter.

When I was looking for something else, Google recently took me to some interesting critical comments on both my presentation style and my references to a major software company and its products, by Orestes Chouchoulas, following my presentation at AID'02.

It seemed sensible to try to respond and explain. (He later acknowledged my comments on his web page -- which is no longer available).

Some of his comments about the quirkiness of my presentations are justified and arise from my reluctance to learn new technology when what I know works well enough -- as a result of which I don't achieve the stylistic elegance and technical quality that is possible with tools I don't use.
(Though I am thinking of getting to know one of the latex-based alternatives to powerpoint, of which beamer, available free from, appears to be the most impressive.)

I should first explain that one of the reasons I never use Powerpoint or its main open source, platform independent, alternative, the presentation package in OpenOffice, or any of the other imitators to produce my own papers or slides, is simply that I intensely dislike having to work with a mouse (except when I need it for producing diagrams) or having to worry about layout when producing text.

(I often use OpenOffice to deal with word, excel or powerpoint files that I am sent by collaborators or administrators --- and generally it copes very well, especially producing PDF with a single click. Pity there's no command line way to invoke that. Or is there?)

I very much prefer ballistic discrete interaction to analog/continuous closed-feedback loop interactions. Of course, I am in a tiny minority and I would not dream of mounting a campaign to stop people using mouse-based tools. Latex allows me to work in my favourite programmable text editor (Ved, not Emacs) and to separate the production of content from production of layout, which I can normally do later (and which sometimes leads to changes of content).

Why then don't I use a latex package that imitates (or even improves on) the powerpoint style (such as Beamer)? A partial answer is that many of the features provided by powerpoint, OO presenter and similar things irritate me intensely during presentations, in particular things like sliding, rotating, swirling, intensifying bits of text or whole slides, whose acrobatics have nothing to do with the content being presented and merely distract attention. I also dislike fancy backgrounds, and irrelevant advertising logos (whether advertising a product, a university, or a research project).

I react in a similar way to the gratuitously added thumping, swishing, clashing, and other background noises now apparently compulsorily added (by 'Media science' graduates???) to news broadcasts and otherwise excellent television documentaries, such as the BBC's Horizon programme. All of these things seem to me to insult the audience, saying in effect,
You are probably too stupid or too low in attention to be able to absorb the content I am presenting, so here's something to keep your mind busy instead.

The phrase 'eye candy' is sometimes used in this context. We could extend it to 'ear candy': all television companies now seem to regard it as a requirement for anything with factual or intellectual content. Perhaps they are all employing graduates of the same fashionable department?

But that's not my main reason for doing things differently. I have a deeper one, namely that I have often tried to make use of presentation files made available by other speakers and mostly found them useless, because the bullet point style works fine as a set of reminders for a speaker and as an aid to attention-focusing in the audience during a live presentation, but it encourages the use of impoverished content because so much detail will be provided by the speaker during the presentation. That may be fine for many kinds of presentations. However when I give presentations they are always tiny windows into a large and complex web of ideas I have been gradually exploring since my DPhil days around 1960, and I know that whatever I say during the presentation will not really be understood by most of the audience unless they use the opportunity to see more of the web (of ideas, not the WWW).

So I try to add extra detail (including additional material that I may or may not allude to during the presentation, depending on time and the questions or comments I get) and then I put the slides on the internet so that anyone who really wishes to find out more can peruse them, follow links, send me criticisms and suggestions, etc. Of course the majority never do. But the small minority who do make it all worth while, from my point of view, especially when they show me a gap or error in my thinking that I can try to fix.

When giving a presentation I try to remember to warn audiences not to look at my slides during the talk unless I direct them to do so, but I am aware that the slides can be confusing, distracting and too cluttered, nevertheless. Despite all that, I show them in order to give me reminders and to allow me choice as to what to present, on the basis of which questions have arisen during the talk and what the audience seems to be interested in. (E.g. I often start by asking how many are philosophers, psychologists, linguists, AI researchers, etc.) I would also prefer not to have to prepare two versions of the slides -- one for presentations and one for off-line reading.

I am also very aware that the resulting slide presentations, mostly online at
have many flaws. Some of the flaws might be overcome by combining such slide presentations with audio presentations, using technology that I've only recently tried, illustrated here. One problem is what that does to bandwidth requirements. Another is the difficulty of editing and reusing recorded speech. I suspect the only acceptable solution for most people would be for me to present these ideas in a book. Perhaps one day I will, though even that will have many flaws and will not be easy to take in.

However, my web of ideas is not necessarily going to suit the intellectual needs of anyone else. We should grow our own webs, constrained, of course, by what we are trying to understand or explain.

A final comment on a point that seemed to annoy Orestes Chouchoulas, namely my references to my use of linux instead of windows and latex/xdvi instead of powerpoint. That was motivated by the growing and alarming realisation that the vast majority of people all round the world (including some very intelligent and otherwise well educated people) seemed to have been brainwashed into thinking that
by definition:
  • a computer is a machine running windows,
  • software is something provided by MS, and
  • a presentation is something that uses powerpoint.
  • I regarded and still regard that as a very dangerous development over the last two decades leading to closed minds and closed avenues for education, exploration of ideas, and technological development both at individual level and for society. So in my possibly clumsy and ineffective way I felt it necessary to tell people that there are alternatives that can be used.

    In fact there are much better alternatives now in 2006 than there were in 2002. There is also much wider appreciation of the necessity for diversity and the possibilities provided by alternatives such as Apple and Open Source products including Linux (which of course has a large overlap with Apple's operating system). In optimistic moments I think liberation has begun. In more pessimistic moods I fear that it is all getting worse as indicated here and in my prediction for 2030 here.

    During question time at AID'02, for some reason, I (probably jokingly) commented on the fact that using xdvi I could go to page 1, for example, by typing '1g', and asked if powerpoint could do that. Orestes chided me on his web page for not knowing that there are superior ways to jump to the beginning or end of a powerpoint file. My only defence is that I had often seen powerpoint users having to leave presentation mode, and struggle with a menu of icons, and sometimes getting lost. Of course, if you don't remember even the approximate page number of the slide you want using the more cumbersome method has definite benefits because it allows visual search. But the main point was not that I was trying to argue that any particular package is the best, but that our minds, and the minds of our children, should be freed from the stranglehold of a giant, who does not necessarily wish us all well.

    Last updated: 28 Jan 2006; 29 Nov 2009
    Maintained by Aaron Sloman
    School of Computer Science
    The University of Birmingham