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Replacing PowerPoint with Play-Doh

Are detailed diagrams shown in PowerPoint the best way to train people on technical content? Or might a more hands-on approach benefit the learners?

“I’m sorry. Can you say that again? You want to use WHAT when we teach the technical aspect of the content?”


“Yeah, that’s what I thought you said. And you want grown adults, some of them in their 60s and 70s, to do this?”


Such was the conversation I had with my client when I proposed we swap out a technical, PowerPoint-based presentation with a hands-on activity that called for dozens of canisters of Play-Doh. I admit that, after this conversation, I grew a little more nervous. If the activity flopped, my team stood to lose a lot of credibility with this extremely important client.  

When the day came to debut the activity, I grew increasingly excited as participants walked in and commented on the Play-Doh canisters on their tables. To better understand what happened and why we chose to use Play-Doh, here is some background on this project.

The Original Activity

Originally, the content was designed to be presented to participants through a series of slides that offered technical drawings of the content at hand. Subject matter experts would explain the technical features of the products that participants needed to be knowledgeable about and then ask a series of questions to ensure that the participants were grasping the content.

The Change

We moved the technical drawings into a Participant Guide, with brief descriptions and explanations of key components of the products.

Participants were then challenged to used Play-Doh to re-create one of the products, using different colors to represent the different layers of the product. At the end of the allotted time limit, the participants need to describe each layer of the product they had re-created with the facilitators offering corrections as needed.

Play Doh 2

Why This Change?

Instead of participants listening passively as knowledgeable facilitators describe the technical components of the product, participants were given an opportunity to review the key components on their own and then test whether or not they understood those components by re-creating a product in a small group.

Facilitators could identify what the participants understood and where they still had confusion during each small group presentation of their Play-Doh sculptures.

The Results

After testing this out in a train the trainer session, the program facilitators commented that teaching these concepts in this way would help to make the technical presentation much more memorable. They felt they had to understand each component in order to try re-creating it with Play-Doh.

Transferable Lessons for Other Presentations

I’m not a complete PowerPoint basher. Indeed, I think PowerPoint (when used correctly) can be a powerful tool to help learners grasp key concepts.

However, there are much better ways to engage people when there is content they’ll need to use in the real world – in sales calls, in customer service situations, in management conversations – to name a few.

We found Play-Doh to be an extremely effective tool to teach highly technical content because participants had an immediate opportunity to show the facilitator whether or not they understood and whether or not they could engage a customer in a high-level conversation.

We’ll continue to replace PowerPoint-centric presentations with more hands-on opportunities. How about you – what materials have you found effective in moving from a facilitator-centric presentation to a participant-centered lesson?

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