Exploring the Unknown

Exploring the Unknown
Representing the 99%!

Saturday, July 2, 2016

How You Can Improve Your Presentation Skills in 8 Easy Steps!

Remember Me?
Photo © Steve Isaacs
Remember acetates? There were two type of professors who used them. The kind who photocopied information onto them and the type who wrote in messy handwriting. Either way, they would be packed with information. So much so that trying to copy everything down frantically often led to students sighing loudly, whimpering sadly or inevitably just giving up on trying to keep up with each change of acetate.  In those days most students had serious callouses on their index and middle fingers from all of the note taking. (a lost art in itself - but I digress) Teacher's notes were akin to the bible, at least, in its immediate importance as students knew that if it was written on an acetate, it would undoubtedly pop up on an exam further down the line. Over the last thirty years we have seen overhead projectors take a back seat to Microsoft PowerPoint and most recently Prezi. Students no longer have callouses on their fingers because they no longer take notes. (Again, I digress...) However, some things never change as many teachers and students alike are still making several faux pas' with their presentations.

Step 1: Know Your Tools

Prezi Vs. PowerPoint
Photo © Katrina Howat
Regardless if you are a teacher or a student, if your new to the world of academia most academic institutions often require or expect their academics to make use of the existing technology available. Though, unfortunately, very few actually take the time and trouble to teach you how to do so effectively. When I began teaching I had walked into class with no formal training on how to use a smart classroom. These classes vary and come equipped with overhead projectors, computers and usually interactive whiteboards. There wasn't a piece of chalk to be found anywhere. I was simply told that "everybody" was using PowerPoint at the time. "It's easy", they said and proceeded to give me some examples of "good presentations" that I could use and base future class lectures on. At the time a prezi was slang for a gift much like Instagram's use to mean somebody would show up at your work and sing a song and give you a message. How the world has changed!

Photo © Prezi.com
I often have students ask me how to do a PowerPoint presentation or how to use Lea, the Omnivox Classroom or MIO, an internal emailing system via Omnivox. There are no more instruction manuals, just questions and blank faces. Everything is about exploration or if you're lucky, someone takes the time and trouble to write down the steps on how to do something on the internet for you. Thus, take the time to get to know the software at your academic institution. Whether it's PowerPoint or Prezi, Omnivox or Angel, don't assume you can learn everything in just five minutes. When it comes to presentations, there are pros and cons to using both Prezi and PowerPoint. Which is better? Why not make a presentation with both and decide for yourself! Prezi has even given academics an opportunity to convert some old PowerPoints into a Prezi!

Step 2: Avoid Using Other People's Presentations

Photo © Poll Everywhere.com
When I first began teaching I inherited classes that had already been developed and taught by previous teachers. Thus, many of them just passed along their PowerPoint slides. At first glance I felt overwhelmed. It looked like a manuscript, not a presentation slide. But who was I to argue? After all, these were tried and tested. They were packed with information and examples. The latter in particular would turn out to be my downfall. In one spectacular moment just a few weeks into teaching a university class of 140 students I found myself trying to explain a simple theory in Health and Wellbeing with an utterly complicated example that a former teacher had used in the past based on her own professional background - science. Lesson learned. By making your own slides and giving your own examples not only do you come off as more professional and interesting but as well you feel better and more confident giving the presentation.

Step 3: Less Is More!

Photo © Carl Landau
Although there are many websites that will give you several steps on how to make a presentation, what to avoid and which software to use many of these sites talk about this from the perspective of business rather than academic presentations. However, they all do agree on one point! Avoid giving too much information! The dreaded wall of text is enough to automatically turn your audience into living zombies. Some students may begin to frantically start copying the notes whilst others turn to their cell phones for a non corporeal escape. Whilst explaining how to go about teaching a class recently I asked my students to name three things that they hated about their classes with past and present teachers and three things that they liked. Number one was the aforementioned wall of text.

Short and Sweet
Number two on their list was when teachers stand in front of the class reading directly from the PowerPoint slide. Remember, this isn't story time for inmates on death row! The third pet peeve was teachers who obviously did not know their material or rather, didn't like what they were teaching. Standing in front of a class using a monotonous voice for two hours would be enough to drive any student away from academia and straight into the unwanted arms of social welfare. What students did like were presentations that had simple but clear messages on each slide; teachers who were clearly knowledgeable about a topic and perhaps most important of all teachers who were not afraid to go off script and turn student questions into part of the class discussion even if it meant not getting through every slide! My philosophy is it's better to have students walk away having learned one aspect of a topic than to walk away having learned nothing because you rushed through your material. So take two classes instead of one to explain something.

Step 4: Be Creative!

Are You Looking At Me?
Create Your Own Template! 
Remember, your presentation should be fun, playful and interactive whenever and however possible. Use pictures, videos and be colourful with your actual presentations slides. Sometimes a picture says it all. Whatever you decide to do, don't forget, Less is More! Use a quote, or have a maximum of six or eight points on one slide. The latter should be key words or even questions that encourages class participation. However, if it gets to be too much, add an extra slide. There are hundreds of PowerPoint templates to choose from. Personally, I began to make my own last year. It makes otherwise simple topics more memorable (i.e. anthropomorphism) and interesting.

The Culture and Politics of Graffiti
When embedding videos and or pictures make sure that you do so properly. Don't just copy and paste a picture onto your slide or add an http://website link directly onto the slide. This can make it look sloppy and disorganized. PowerPoint actually has everything you need to format the latter properly. Choose photos and or videos that are relevant to what you are talking about. Showing a picture of Herbie the Love Bug whilst talking about the Spanish Inquisition will only raise questions about your sanity. Be sure to credit photos to their appropriate sources. There are several ways of doing this including attaching a copyright disclaimer under each photo or adding a reference page at the end of your presentation. Check out MorgueFile.com for free pictures.

Step 5: Avoid Unnecessary Gimmicks

Photo © Think Outside The Slide.com
However you decide to make your presentation memorable I would suggest that you avoid some of the following aspects of PowerPoint in particular. Unique animations, fonts, and colours may be fun but they also rarely work as intended. This is partly due to the fact that your home computer may not have the latest version of PowerPoint or worse, you are trying to convert PowerPoint from a PC to an Apple. When I started off I thought it would add charm to my presentations only to learn quickly that it can be the cause for frustration. This is especially true when clicking on a link designed to take you to another website like YouTube.

Photo ©  Cynthia Starks
Since 2012 I actually stopped using PowerPoint in class. Don't get me wrong, I still use it to create my class notes but once complete I save it as a PDF document. This not only ensures that my hyperlinks work well but also maintains the presentation as I originally created it. Furthermore, it protects your intellectual property, especially if you share your lecture notes with students. This brings me to another important point. Keep your presentations short and sweet. Even if you spread a lecture over two classes, you really shouldn't need more than ten to twelve slides. When I first started using PowerPoint as a teaching tool my notes would easily exceed twenty or so pages. Many teachers and students alike are still doing this. Death by PowerPoint is an understatement.

Step 6: Lesson Plans Are A Must! 

Last semester Chuck Klosterman came to Bishop University to give a talk entitled Life Through Prism of Pop Culture. I used the opportunity as a field trip for one of my classes aptly named, Consumerism, Leisure and Popular Culture. Ironically Klosterman spent the majority of the time talking about keeping things fresh. He criticized speakers for reusing material, re-hashing examples and stories and essentially for lacking any imagination or energy in giving talks. Where's the irony you ask? Klosterman had been recorded in past giving similar speeches, anecdotes and criticisms at other venues. Overall, his presentation felt old and tired and he seemed to know it.

Whilst Klosterman didn't have any presentations slides he did read directly from his book during the last twenty minutes or so of his talk! In truth, there wasn't much in the way of Life Through the Prism of Pop Culture. It isn't enough to just throw in some witty quotes, pictures and videos. As Dave Paradi illustrates, audiences expect better delivery skills and poor presentations have a real cost to organizations and academic institutions alike. Like Klosterman, we have all been there, including myself, because lets face it - who has the energy to make every single class a comedy show?! As I tell my students before their teachable moments, have a clear and concise idea of what you want your audience to take away after a class. This is especially true of any activities you should decide to include in your lesson plan. Duck Duck Goose might be fun, but ultimately pointless if there is no aim to its implementation.

Step 7: An Alternative to PowerPoint?

Photo © PresentationZen.com
There are teachers, myself included, who have made using PowerPoint mandatory in many instances where group presentations or individual oral presentations are concerned. We claim that we are teaching them valuable skills for their future careers but how many of us take the time to actually teach students how to make a PowerPoint presentation? Sometimes teachers give a brief tutorial on how to use it but generally we leave students up their own devices to figure it out on their own. We need to set higher standards for not only our students but ourselves as well. However, given the general misuse of PowerPoint I can't help but wonder sometimes if we are not doing a disservice to students by insisting on one type of presentation software. Cue Prezi...

Prezi VS. PowerPoint
Photo © Pepperdine TechLearn
Earlier this semester Jennifer came home with a Prezi from one of her colleagues. I had to admit I was rather impressed. So much so that I have given students the opportunity to play with this software this semester for their class presentations. To begin with, Unlike PowerPoint, Prezi is free to use and gives you up to 100 MB of storage on cloud. For your average student, what more do you need? It literally saves them $119.00! As for Prezi, if 100 MB isn't enough for the discerning professional there are three payment options that allow for 500 MB and 2 GB of storage. Furthermore, where students would have to send each other their PowerPoint slides via email and later integrate them (which can in turn lead lead to issues in Step 5. Prezi is available online and allows multiple students to make changes, add content or simply review one another's work. For further information check out Pepperdine TechLearn's comparison between PowerPoint & Prezi. Remember, regardless of which you choose, your presentation is not a substitute for good lesson planning.

Step 8: Don't Depend on Technology

Create a FUN Learning Environment!
There is a reason why schools provide teachers with white and black boards still to this day. Technology may have made our lives simpler but equally it has numbed our abilities to be spontaneous and to react to unforeseen situations. Any academic, be they student or teacher, can attest to that moment of anxiety and embarrassment when just as you are about to wow your class with your brilliance the file doesn't work, the power goes out, the video is no longer available for streaming, or aliens just invaded and you don't have a presentation slide to tell you what to do or say next. It's a sickening feeling to say the least and it brings us to an even greater issue that we are all facing: our over dependence on technology!

Photo © Bishop University
Some teachers say that they are not there to entertain; that they are paid to educate not play with students. You have to ask yourself, what pre-school did this person go to as a child? Education should be fun! There is literally 101 things you can do with your class during the first three weeks of the semester alone! Taking a topic and making it fun for you is key to making it fun, or at the very least interesting for them! Classrooms can be anything you want it to be and anywhere you want it to be! Know your teaching style and work with what you have! So the next time something goes wrong with the not so smart classroom, be spontaneous. Take your class outside or have them do an impromptu activity. Get them thinking about a topic instead of simply memorizing it.

1 comment:

  1. Very informative and helpful! Thank you!