PowerPoint: Why You Shouldn't Use The "B" Key
Some presentation trainers teach speakers to use the “B” key during PowerPoint presentations, which blacks out the screen after each slide is shown. Their argument is that a speaker can reduce distractions for the audience by introducing a slide, talking about it, and blacking out the screen until it’s time for the next slide.
That makes sense in theory, but there are at least two problems with that approach.
First, speakers don’t only have to hit the “B” key when they black out the screen, but have to strike it again when they turn the screen back on.
Second, the previous slide is still up when the screen comes back on, meaning you have to both turn the screen on and advance the slide. That’s an awful lot of fumbling around, and it’s usually more distracting than just leaving the original slide up.
There are only two times I recommend using the “B” key:
1. Emotionally Difficult Material: If you put up a slide containing emotionally difficult material and prefer not to linger too long on that point; and
2. Experienced Speakers: If you’re an exceptionally experienced speaker who can gracefully navigate between slides using the “B” key without creating a larger distraction.
But a better practice is simply to put up your slide, give the audience a few moments to take it in, and then begin speaking. Remember – good slides are simple, containing just a few words and/or simple graphics. If you give the audience a few moments to absorb each new slide before you begin speaking, they’re unlikely to present a noteworthy distraction.
Related: The Five Most Common PowerPoint Mistakes
Please don’t take offence, but I have to admit that I’ve so disliked watching almost every PowerPoint slideshow / presentation that I’ve had to sit through that whether or not they’ve used the ‘B’ key is almost immaterial to me! I have encouraged speakers to use the ‘B’ when I’ve felt that they are using PP as a crutch, instead of a device with which to summarise a presentation at the end or to show purely visual images.
I do have a bee in my bonnet about PP as I personally find the whole thing a distraction! But thanks for your blog – I love a good debate.
Cordelia Ditton (DillyTalk) (See here if you are interested in why: http://bit.ly/1YuevV)
Thank you for leaving a comment. I agree with you that PowerPoint is used far too often as a crutch, which serves more as a distraction than a support.
But I don’t have a problem with PowerPoint itself. We know from social science that messages reinforced visually tend to stick better — the question is how we go about developing and displaying those visuals. I agree with you that too many speakers get that part wrong.
Thanks for reading, and please swing by the blog again!
Hmmm…. I tend to use B keys under certain circumstances (such as if the audience have asked me an unexpected question and the current slide would hinder my answer) but I do use the black screen quite a bit….
…. I know you need to know in advance when you’re going to use it, but I’ve largely replaced the B key with black slides. That way I get around the problems you’ve outlined *and* I can fade in/out if I want to, making the whole thing more elegant.
I like to use the blank screen only in the beginning during the opening and relaying the core message. However a big lesson I learned today is that you should inform the A/V staff in advance (when using it at conferences). Poor guy was very concerned and checked cables when the screen suddenly went blank.
Great point about notifying the A/V team. Wouldn’t have thought of that one myself!
Thanks for commenting,
I strongly agree that hiding every slide would be a bad idea, but for different reasons. I think it would become very obtrusive and would frustrate the audience if the speaker did that.
As you suggest, just use a simple slide, let people absorb it, and then say your point. I like what Nancy Duarte, Garr Reynolds, and Jerry Weissman propose: Make each slide so your audience just needs 3-5 seconds to digest it. (For their supporting articles, please see my recent “Quiz” post.)
As for the 2 problems you mention, I see them a bit differently. First, to come back from black you can press ANY key, which you can do without even looking at the keyboard. And second, to come back from black and go to the next slide, you can just press spacebar twice, so I’d say no fumbling is needed.
Mind you, here are several novel tips for hiding your current slide when you get a question or you hold a discussion. All 3 tips have the advantage that when you resume, your NEXT slide is shown:
Black is back, but better – 3+ new ways to hide your slide
I’d be delighted to hear your thoughts on those, so feel free to leave a comment.
Thanks for all the thought-provoking content of your site!
Thank you for your comment. I enjoyed your post, and have scheduled the link to go out on my Twitter feed this afternoon.
One concern I’d have with the solution to press keys on your keyboard is that it requires the presenter to return to his or her laptop. In some settings (small groups, for example), that may be appropriate – but I generally prefer trainees to speak with a remote. To my knowledge, there’s no remote that allows someone to “skip forward” after hitting the B key. (Inserting a black slide would do the trick.)
Generally speaking, I prefer to reserve the all-black slide for rare dramatic effect. As you cited from Duarte, Reynolds, et. al., if the slide isn’t too complicated, leaving it up shouldn’t present much of a distraction.
I really appreciate you leaving such a thoughtful comment! Please feel free to comment on future stories.