‘In my mind’s eye’

‘In my mind’s eye’ is a common expression that I heard my parents’ generation use, which means, I think, imagining visual images or ‘seeing’ ideas and arguments. I experienced an excellent example of this recently at a seminar for doctoral research supervisors. Most of the event was quite remarkably paperless and in the workshops and the plenary sessions I attended PowerPoint or flip charts weren’t used at all. 

There was one particular session which I found quite remarkable. Two colleagues presented ideas about the structure of the thesis. They sat side by side and spoke quite freely, though at the same time with huge precision. The first one spoke about his experience of an experimental design, and said that this was well represented by one of several models that his colleague, sitting next to him, had found on the internet. The colleague had it on the screen of his iPad which was facing him on the table. The first speaker was able to look over and also see it. The conversation between them went something like this, as they both looked at the screen that the audience couldn’t see:

Yes, there it is. It has an introduction, a context chapter, three experiments and a conclusion.

And there’s also a second model here, which I suppose is for the humanities, in which there is an introduction and then three themes.

Of course they could have just talked about the two models without looking at the screen. But somehow, certainly for me, them looking at the screen that I couldn’t see pushed them into a way of talking that enabled the conjuring of rich visual images. 

Earlier in my career I was entirely dependent on overhead transparencies. Before it was possible to laser print transparancies they were hand written and drawn. But I also remember going to an international conference in the early 80s at which there was an outcry from many of the delegates against the use of transparancies in presentations. The conference organised had to make a plenary statement about the need to be tolerant. In the mid 90s I was invited to do a lecture tour in Pakistan. At one location there weren’t the facilities for projecting transparencies; and for the first time I had to just speak from notes. It was a liberating experience; and a colleague who was travelling with me said that it was good to see me talking to the audience instead of to the display screen.

I now try to be strategic about whether I use PowerPoint, a handout or just speak from notes. It depends on the audience, it’s size, the nature of the event and so on. But perhaps it shouldn’t be when not to use PowerPoint, as though it’s the default. Perhaps it should be when to use PowerPoint – working up from the fewest possible slides and which one’s really need to be seen. 

However, the most comfortable position when using PowerPoint – after a lot of trying different things – is to have the notes I would talk to if I didn’t use PowerPoint on the PowerPoint screen. This simplifies the focus of my attention in what I want to say. So, basically, for me, it’s as minimal as possible notes that work – sometimes just to speak from, sometimes also on a handout, sometimes on PowerPoint slides.

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