Making Effective Online Courses with PowerPoint and Voiceover

There are three things to remember when teaching: know your stuff; know whom you are stuffing; and then stuff them elegantly.” Lola May

onlinecoursetemplates   In the last year, I’ve taken what feels like umpteen billion online courses. The main reason it feels that way is because most of them have been terrible. There’s a belief circulating that anyone can teach an online course, and the main reason to teach one is to make a bundle of money.


I want teachers to make a lot of money, I really do. They deserve to be paid well for what has to be one of the most important jobs on the planet. But to jump on a zebra racing to the bank is not the same thing as deciding to teach a course because you care passionately about the subject, the student, and whether the two get along.

This week, I want to take a look at how to make online courses using PowerPoint and voiceover, without boring your audience into a coma.

Making Online Courses with PowerPoint and Voiceover

I am just going to assume that you care about getting your students excited about the subject matter and learning what it is your teaching. That is, after all, where the fun lies.

I’m not going to talk about read-and-advance style training modules, which are commonly used for teaching everything from ethics compliance to how to do engine diagnostics. Instead, I’ll focus on the most common style I see in the online course craze: PowerPoint with Voiceover.

This approach records a slide deck on video, so you see the string of slides while the teacher speaks about the subject as a disembodied voice. It mostly uses text and still images, although some versions include a video at the beginning or the end to remind the student that there is a real person teaching the course.

Why Are Most PowerPoint/Voiceover Courses Deadly Boring?

This process provides a quick-and-easy way to build an online course, and I’m tempted to use it myself just because it’s so easy. But it’s rarely effective. Why not?

Because the folks putting together the slides forget that we, the students, will get bored staring at the same word, line, or image for minutes at a time while they blather on about something that we quickly stop paying attention to.

Unless you are incredibly dynamic, unless you remember that what we see on the screen should pertain to what we need to see to learn the material, you can expect that we’ll start multi-tasking and just half-listening. Then barely listening. Then wandering off.

If, on the other hand, you show your whole script as you read it, you’ll lose people too. They will ask themselves, A) Why isn’t this “course” just an ebook? Or, B) They’ll read ahead of you or behind you, and either way, they’ll stop listening to you.

It’s a fascinating problem.

How to Make an Engaging PowerPoint/Voiceover Course

Recently I watched a webinar by Michael Hyatt that used a lot of the techniques I recommend to solve the PowerPoint/Voiceover conundrum. I stayed engaged in the webinar, so I’m going to dissect his delivery to explain how you, too, can create an online course with just PowerPoint and Voiceover. (Although I still recommend all video if you can swing it. You are—hopefully—a lot more fun to watch than slides.)

This particular webinar had a video field where we could see him live, but most of the time we were looking at slides. Here’s why I stayed engaged:

  • His voice conveyed excitement for what he was teaching. He spoke naturally but with conviction, and because he was passionate about the subject, it was easy for me to stay interested regardless of what was on the screen.
  • He remembered that he was teaching, not just reading slides, notes, or a script. He restated key points to make sure we got them.
  • He varied his tone, volume, and pacing depending on how important a point was, and the changes in rhythm kept me more alert to the content.
  • He packed his lesson with information. Packed it. Oddly enough, many online teachers forget to do this, and they treat their content like it is a Fluffernutter sandwich—gooey marshmallow stuffing on white bread. Not Hyatt.
  • I was doing something else when I first turned on the webinar, but I found I wasn’t able to multitask. I couldn’t half listen. I was missing things that I didn’t want to miss. He not only remembered that he was teaching, he also remembered that my time was valuable and fed me content with high nutritional value.
  • He also remembered what it is like to not know what it was he was teaching. He retained “beginner’s mind,” and he fleshed out his points with personal stories and anecdotes that kept the material fresh while making it more memorable. And meaningful.
  • He used single words or phrases on the screen as cues, and admittedly, they weren’t exciting to look at. But when the onscreen text was nothing noteworthy, he amped up his delivery.
  • He posted key points on the screen when he thought we’d want or need to take notes.
  • He didn’t fill the screen with pointless images; true, sometimes he put up a photograph—one, for instance, of blueprints for an addition to his house and then a picture of the addition once built. They were good quality photographs and illustrated his point. And then he moved on from there, so we didn’t have to look at them too long.

Criteria for Deciding What Text to Show

When you’re deciding what text to show, remember that no one can see you—so there’s no point in putting up everything you’re reading. Instead, ask yourself which are the critical details that a student would want to remember. Those should go on the screen. Someone might take notes from them, but in addition, seeing as well as hearing the points will help reinforce what the student is learning. They don’t need to be fully written out; think about how you would take notes of your content.

Is the student going to be tested on this? Will the student want to return to this information later? Will the student need particular details to implement steps in a process? Answer yes to any of these questions, and you have your answer about what to put on the screen.

Also put up anything that the student will understand better if he/she can see a visual representation of it. Difficult names, graphics, charts, or maps—that sort of thing should definitely be onscreen while you unpack them. And please, highlight the part of the graphic we should be looking at.

Apply some motion to your presentation when it makes sense (no gratuitous bouncing words, please), for instance to help us focus on a part of a map, or to reveal key points in a bulleted list. Prezi is a free software that enables you to add motion, and they provide many examples and templates to get you started.

More Ways to Interject Life in the Lesson

Make the lesson more interactive. Break up your lesson by giving students a quick quiz after each of your major sections, for example. You most likely have experience with which questions generate incorrect answers, and that affords you a great opportunity to unpack your material in a different way before moving on.

Throw in other elements:

  • Be funny. Throw a joke on the screen but without the punch line.
  • Ask questions—open-ended, true/false, multiple choice—not as part of a quiz, but as a way to introduce a new topic. Put the question on one slide, and the answer on the next. Put both up as you unpack the “why” for the answer.
  • Move briskly through the slides and have a lot of them so there’s some sense of action. But slow down when the material is complicated or when you think students need to take notes.

We read 25% more slowly online; we expect to see 50% less text, and we expect to scan it. So we should see only what’s important. Skip the adjectives and adverbs, use action verbs, and keep sentences that you speak—and that we see onscreen—active.

Try delivering your lessons to a live audience and showing the same slides to them that you intend to use in your recorded course. Ask them to rate the slides with a simple + for ones that made sense or that you moved through quickly enough, and a – for ones they felt they looked at too long. Adjust accordingly.

Teaching this way requires even more effort and creativity than in person. But if you apply that effort and infuse your teaching with creative solutions, students can learn this way. The benefit of reaching so many more people makes the effort worth it.

I hope you found this blog helpful. Please send me your questions for future issues, and tune in next Friday for Issue #26 of “Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses.” Next week, we’ll look at tips for editing onscreen text. Sounds like it’s too easy to need tips, doesn’t it? Ha ha ha—you’re only thinking that if you’ve never done it.

Want to learn how to make great online courses? To get your free copy of “12 Steps to Killer Course Content,” and weekly tips, click here.

Marcy McDonald is an Online Course Producer. She helps Subject Matter Experts and Professors create online courses with better content, delivery, and production, for better teaching. She’s developed ~450 online courses for lifelong learners, worked in video and audio studios, and filmed in the field (literally).

Contact Marcy for help crafting your online course:

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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