Most presentation remotes made in the modern era come with a laser pointer built in (even mine, put as the center button!). My guess is that the engineers who design such things think anything with a laser is cool. Plus, they don’t take much power (battery), and are cheap and easy to implement. With the buttons being big and conspicuous, the temptation to use the laser is great.
From the very first time I saw a laser used in a presentation – maybe 25 years ago – I found something unsettling about it. But as laser prevalence persisted, I figured the problem was me. Maybe I’m just a Luddite who doesn’t appreciate glitzy technology. And, I cannot fathom how a five-minute video of nothing but a point of light moving across the screen has 20 MILLION views. Apparently, we are easily entertained with laser light as a culture.
As I’ve observed and studied and become more convinced about the principles that govern communication, I can say rather strongly:
Laser pointers aren’t needed, aren’t helpful, and should likely be eliminated from your presentation toolkit.
- You can’t hold a laser still. Especially as the distance from the light source increases, small movements of your hand result in wild movements of the point of light. So, instead of highlighting one thing, the laser distracts as it flutters across the image. Plus, once a presenter gets addicted to the laser, it points to all sorts of things and is used to just point haplessly at the screen as if to say, “I’m talking about something that’s on the screen now.”
- You’re admitting your visual doesn’t carry the message you want it to carry. Since it needs additional highlights to be pointed out, your visual clearly has problems. When we teach PowerPoint methodology, one of the principles we teach that affects both the title and content on a slide is this: if someone were to walk in the room in the middle of your talk and look at your slide, they should know the exact point you are making. I can make exceptions for pictures that are just the visual companion to a story, but for critical messages, the point should be obvious. This alone should eliminate most data tables, graphs, and long sections of prose from every being displayed in front of an audience.
- You’re introducing another layer of technology that is easy to make a mistake with. I think in just about every presentation where lasers have been an issue, the presenter at some point hits the wrong button (you’re using the same device to advance your slides), the batteries go dead and the beam becomes dim, or they just get laser happy and hold the button down for everything.
- You can only point to one screen at a time. If you have multiple screens (common in a conference setting), you are forced to choose one or the other. Half your audience is not able to see what you are highlighting, and is probably forced to try and make sense of a screen that is far away and hard to read. There’s a reason there were multiple screens to begin with.
Instead of using a laser pointer, if you’re using a computer to generate the visual you are highlighting, use that same computer to generate the highlight. You can even blur out the parts of a picture the audience is not supposed to be looking at, put the critical point or text in a box, or highlight with color. That draws the attention the point needs without a wobbling point of light. If you’re using a flipchart, just walk over and use a marker to make your point.
I have seen one application of a laser pointer that is cool. My dad is an amateur astronomer. He uses a laser to point out stars and interesting features in the night sky. It’s amazing to watch that beam of light travel into the abyss, pointing right at a star that is millions of light years away. (Side note that will keep you out of jail: never, ever, point such a device at an airplane.)
I can imagine you might also use such a laser pointer on an architecture tour to point out elements of a building. And I’m sure our readers can find other valid uses. But inside a room, pointing at a computer-generated image is not the place for a laser pointer.
Let’s leave the lasers to sci-movies, astronomers, and cat lovers. Good communicators shouldn’t need one.
Communication Matters. What are you saying?
This article was published in the February edition of our monthly speaking tips email newsletter, Communication Matters. Have speaking tips like these delivered straight to your inbox every month. Sign up today to receive our newsletter and receive our FREE eBook, “Twelve Tips that will Save You from Making a Bad Presentation.” You can unsubscribe at any time.