Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Making Killer Presentations

Too often when students give slideshow presentations they waste everyone's time. 

There, I said it.

Now, this is partly due to poor presentation techniques ("death by PowerPoint"), but mostly due to our changing information environment and evolving learning methods. So, even a very good presentation by past standards may not be good anymore.

In short, when we can all access a wealth of information on any topic, why would we put up with it being rehashed (often less adequately) in class? When we know that active and participatory learning beats more passive modes, why would we tolerate any format that is essentially an info monologue?

I want to do three things in this post: evaluate the relative evil of the slide show presentation format; introduce a great resource for avoiding "death by PowerPoint"; and finally, recommend four components for a killer presentation.

Let me quickly add that a killer presentation may not in fact be the best vehicle for the teaching or learning that is needed. But if we do use them, then let's use them well. 

Are slide shows evil?
No. PowerPoint presentations have proven to be a good learning tool -- but mostly for the presenter(s). Preparing a presentation can lead to synthesizing and analyzing ideas. I'm all for that. But what about the audience? Often, presenting simply isn't teaching; it's data transfer (with a slow bit rate and low signal-to-noise ratio). The audience isn't actively engaged in anything when being lectured to.

Now, don't get me wrong. I disagree with those who are dismissive of lectures. I appreciate a good "sage on the stage," and have even tried to be one. A well crafted lecture can be deeply engaging and an effective learning method (with or without PowerPoint). I'm not throwing out the baby with the bath water here. But monologue methods of instruction must be used with great caution, since they constantly risk reducing the active participation of the students or audience.

You know what slideshows are better for? Private research and online sharing. I actually highly recommend that students both search among and post their own presentations on I have gotten overviews of many topics through presentations posted there. Bullet pointed info has its place. But only with great discretion in the classroom!

Avoiding "death by PowerPoint"
Take a couple minutes and click through this slide show by Alexei Kapterev. It lays out (and exemplifies) great principles for better slideshows. Look especially for what he says about keeping presentations simple, and making sure they have significance:
The simplicity he speaks about is in part a design issue (don't crowd a slide with a big outline of text; use images and visuals but avoid overcrowded graphics), but is also a conceptual one. You just can't cover everything on your topic, so don't try! Coverage of a topic can never be the goal of a presentation. It will never be complete and by itself is simply not engaging. For students or audiences to be engaged, I suggest  the following.

Four components for killer presentations

  1. Show your passion
  2. Tell a Story
  3. Make a Claim
  4. Make a Call to Action

1. Show Your Passion
If you don't care, then I don't care. Simple as that. So, while preparing, you have to study the topic in terms of something you truly care about. There have to be stakes. People need to see your joy or worry or even your anger. When you connect your content to what you deeply care about, you end up presenting yourself as much as your ideas, and that is a good thing. People are more able to be invested in content when you give them the ability to connect with you as a person. So, make this topic real for you so it will be real for them.

2. Tell a Story
I don't mean give an ice-breaker anecdote. I mean you must structure your whole presentation as a narrative with a simple plot that people can follow: context-problem-solution. I'm doing it right now in this post: I established a context to which my audience can relate (creating or listening to presentations in a school setting); then identified the problems (boredom, passivity, old school pedagogy) and am now offering solutions. Looking for your story to tell can help you cut through the complexity of your topic, and it can also help you show your passion. So, set a scene, introduce the topic in terms of problems that matter to people and that create a tension that you will resolve through the information that you give. People like stories more than bullet points.

3. Make a Claim
You want to know what wakes people up an gets them thinking and doing? A strong claim. Give your audience something to chew on -- even disagree with. The best arguments are those that divide an educated audience. Here's an example (from a recent blog post):
Even if you could care less about software, you need to care about the revolution in software development because it proves the power of noncommercial, large-scale collaborative work.  
A strong claim can flow right from your personal passion and can be elucidated from the story that you tell. Strong claims can lead directly to calls for action.

4. Make a Call to Action
Ask your audience to do something, or don't bother talking to them. If your function is to inform, then your function is to bore. If your goal is to teach and to inspire, then you must make the story that you tell move from the abstraction of you talking to the concrete activity of your audience doing something. This is both pedagogical and persuasive: get them doing something during the time you control in the room, especially if that includes interacting with other people, expressing themselves about the topic in a way you've structured for them. And of course, calls for action can be for activities beyond the classroom, such as contributing to a wiki, attending an event, reading a book, or writing a post or letter.


Now, in our particular classroom, organizing presentations in these ways should be natural since our focus is not on completing an assigned task, but upon getting to the issues that we can then communicate to a broader audience through our intended eBook project. We're not trying to cover topics; we're trying to change the world. So we must make our tools work for us, and not trap us!