Tag Archives: presentations

When giving presentations, the only rule that matters is the rule of attention

Recently I was discussing presentations with a friend who is a student. Although being asked to make a presentation is a fairly common part of the student experience, and he has a reasonable idea of what’s involved, nobody has ever taught him or his peers how to do it.

Because I spend more time thinking about presentations than is strictly healthy, I offered to write my friend an email, summarising my thoughts. But once I got started, it very quickly turned into a monster email, the kind that people tend to skim once and then write a quick one-line reply along the lines of “Thanks, that looks really interesting — I’ll come back to it when I have more time,” maybe because they’re intimidated by the sheer volume and content of it all. (Yeah, okay, this is really about me and how I procrastinate over reading emails that look like they will be hard work. You’re listening to WKLJ — the sound of guilty conscience.) Plus, numerous URLs turn email into hyperlink soup.

So instead of sending my friend an email, I wrote this blog post. It’s ostensibly about the mistakes students make when they give presentations, but really it’s about how the only rules you need to know about giving a good presentation are the ones about human attention.

Here are some common mistakes I see in student presentations:

* Not having practiced the presentation enough.
* Not knowing enough details of the story, including germane technical details/terminology/pronunciation.
* Not picking a topic that they actually find interesting
* Confusing slide preparation with presentation preparation.
* Putting too much information on each slide.
* Not thinking about what it will be like to be the audience for this presentation, rather than the presenter

Notice how ‘being nervous’ is not on that list. We understand that students will be nervous about giving a presentation — being nervous about doing something fairly new in front of other people is completely understandable, and aside from one or two freakish individuals who take to presenting as though they’ve been doing it all their lives, everyone’s in the same boat. So relax :)

None of those mistakes are really about what happens during the presentation: they are all about how students prepare for the presentation beforehand. My impression from several years of watching students give presentations is that they are quite relaxed about the preparation, then get scared when it comes to the presentation itself. But by the time you are ready to give your presentation, it’s too late to be nervous — because by then, you’ve either put in the work, or you haven’t. Preparation is worth being nervous about; standing up and talking isn’t.

Ignore all the ‘rules’ about how to structure your slides. For every rule, there will be at least one instance in which it is not valid. Knowing which rules to follow and which to break is mostly a matter of practice and experience — which you may not have. So ignore, or at least treat with extreme suspicion, anything that sounds like a rule. Common rules include:

* Use X lines of text/bullet-points per slide
* Plan one slide for every N seconds of your talk
* The 10/20/30 rule

These all sound perfectly sensible, but the trouble with rules is that people cling to them for reassurance, and what was originally intended as a guideline quickly becomes a noose. My opposition to putting reams of text on slides is well documented, but I bet there are presentations out there where that’s exactly what’s required — at least, on one or two slides. Likewise, having more than ten slides might be exactly what you need; hell, you might need a hundred. Rules stipulating the number of slides you should have, or how fast you should transition between them, conveniently ignore that these aspects of your presentation depend on (a) what you are talking about, (b) what’s on your slide, and (c) how long that takes your audience to apprehend. Rules about slides are rubbish, because they stop you from thinking critically about what — if anything — you need to show in support of the point you want to make.

Ready-to-fill slide layouts are just another kind of rule. When you open Powerpoint and Keynote, they instantly start making suggestions about the layout of your slides. Bullet-lists feature prominently. When was the last time you enjoyed a presentation that had page after page of bullet points? Once you’ve figured out the story you’re telling, think about how each point could best be conveyed visually, and about whether you even need slides or visual aids at all.

Concentrate on the rules of attention. The thing you most want during a presentation is people’s attention, so everything you do and say has to be about capturing that, and then keeping it. The rules of attention are more or less universal, easier to demonstrate empirically than rules about specific slide formats, and can be neatly summarised as follows: people get bored easily.

Some specific rules of attention are:

People can really only retain about four bits of new, unrelated information — and sometimes not even that many. Don’t overstuff your presentation, and take care to signpost the key points — visually, verbally, however you want.

It’s hard to process spoken and written words at the same time. Integrating your spoken words with pictorial slides makes it easier for the brain to process these two streams of information efficiently. This also helps your audience remember more of what you said.

A story will keep people’s attention, because they will want to know what happens next. At Playful ’09 last week, Tassos Stevens talked about the compelling nature of indeterminacy, and asked the question Once a ball has been thrown, is it possible to look away before you know whether someone catches it? If you don’t know what your story is, or don’t convey that story clearly to your audience, they won’t stay focused; as Hitchcock knew very well, it’s all about suspense.

People really like looking at screens. If you’ve ever been in a pub with the TV on and the sound off, you’ll know that screens are an attention-magnet. This is great when you’re giving your presentation and there’s something on the slide that you want people to look at, but not so great if they are still looking at the slide while you are talking about something else. There’s an easy fix — press B or W while in Slideshow mode: the screen will go black or white, respectively (this works in both Keynote and Powerpoint), and people’s attention will focus on you, because now you are the moving, shiny thing in the room. Toggle the same key when you’re ready to direct the audience’s attention to the screen again.

Sustaining audience attention requires frequent changes. Simon Bostock once tweeted something great about how flow is when you stop noticing the joins between one parcel of attention and the next; this is the state you want to induce in your audience. Paradoxically, in order to get them to concentrate on something for a long time, you need to keep changing the thing they’re paying attention to, or they will get bored. Change stuff mindfully: I don’t mean adding clip-art or unrelated animations to your slides, I mean introduce something seriously astonishing. (Unexpectedness is a brilliant tool for wrangling people’s attention.) Less dramatically, you could use changes in your tone of voice, speaking volume, or where you are standing to draw the audience’s attention to a particular point. Evaluate your slides and consider whether they could be less formulaic; consider introducing some audience participation to get everyone out of the you-talk-while-they-listen rut.

Your audience will tell you when their attention is wandering. Hopefully not out loud, and hopefully not by harshtagging your presentation. But you will know from looking at their faces where their attention is, and if it isn’t on you or your visual aids, you will know that you need to change something. Don’t be afraid to go a bit off-road in the service of keeping people interested; it’s a kindness and a courtesy to stay with your audience, and a presenter on auto-pilot is not a pretty sight.

There are so many more things I could write about attention and presentations, but this is already overlong. So yeah, last rule: short is good. Like I said, rules are for breaking.

.

Edit: There are some great additional points in the comments below.

Edit 2: Olivia Mitchell has written a great post about seven ways to keep your audience’s attention. We’re all about attention hacks here at finiteattentionspan!

[Marginalia: (1) Aesthetic is not a rule. Having a consistent look-and-feel (good colour palettes, consistent use of fonts and text size) can really elevate a presentation. (2) Constraints are not the same as rules. Obviously, most presentations will have a time-limit, and you need to respect that. And if you are doing Ignite or Pecha Kucha, there are some very specific constraints about slide timing (and, necessarily, about what goes on the slide, since viewing time is so short). But constraints are great news for creativity.]

Advertisements

78 Comments

Filed under my stuff

Presenter non grata: are custom slide animations the new PowerPoint?

Way back when, presentation slides were the best thing since sliced bread. Nowadays, we have Death by PowerPoint, with slideware being blamed for uninspiring presentations and comatose students, and generally derided as the root of all evil. But now there’s a whole new threat: custom slide animations.

There’s been a lot of noise this week about a new journal paper by Mahar et al (2009, in press), initially picked up by Science Daily, claiming that custom PowerPoint animations could be detrimental to learning.

To summarise the experimental design: the authors used either static screenshots or custom animated slides backed with identical audio narratives to teach some basic concepts in secure computing, testing students’ knowledge/understanding before and after they viewed the presentation. The non-animated version had all visual prompts (screenshots/signals/bullet-points) visible at once, with the voiceover addressing each in turn. The animated version had each item appear in turn as it was discussed (screenshot components and bullet-points), though it’s worth noting that the bullet-points on a given slide didn’t disappear once they had been narrated.

The SD article itself doesn’t give all that much away, but Olivia Mitchell did some seriously high-quality digging and managed to acquire from the authors some samples of the materials used, and basic figures showing that students’ correct answers in the static condition rose from 38.4% before to 82% following instruction, compared to the animated condition, in which students’ scored 71.4% correct. Olivia, because she is awesome, also addresses the study’s results in the context of cognitive load theory: you should go read her posts.

Ars Technica also weighed in, providing some more details — and a note of caution — about whether animation made things worse:

Both presentations dramatically improved the students’ scores, which were a bit below 40 percent correct in the first administration of the quiz. But the animated presentation brought scores up to 71 percent, while the animation-free version got them to 82 percent. Of the nine questions, only one saw the animated group outperform their static peers.

[… ] Animations that are intended to increase focus can be just as distracting. Note the “can” in that sentence, however — the differences between the scores of the two groups ranged from insignificant to nearly 25 percent, so it’s clear that animation isn’t uniformly harmful to learning, a point the authors themselves note in the discussion.

(Love that balanced reporting, by the way)

What I find frustrating here is that nobody is talking statistics: while a difference of around 10% sounds impressive, it could conceivably be non-significant; I’m twitching, waiting for the article to arrive via inter-library loans, so I can see what statistical tests the authors ran.

The other thing making me crazy is that I don’t know exactly how students’ recall or understanding of the information was tested. The Science Daily post says:

[the authors] … tested the students recall and comprehension of the lecture.
The team found a marked difference in average student performance, with those seeing the non-animated lecture performing much better in the tests than those who watched the animated lecture. Students were able to recall details of the static graphics much better.

Recall and comprehension are quite different beasts. Even just testing basic recall is complicated: do you use multiple-choice question (MCQ) -style responses, or get students to write down an answer based on their own, unprompted recall of the information? That distinction might sound pedantic, but it’s pretty vital: it’s easy to spot the right answer among distractors in MCQs, just based on familiarity, but to generate the correct answer yourself with no prompts requires that you have actually internalised the information; this distinction forms the basis of the remember-know paradigm. And that’s before we get into the nitpicking of ‘recall’ versus ‘comprehension’ …

So far, early research conducted with my colleagues Andy Morley and Melanie Pitchford suggests that recognition of the correct answer based on familiarity isn’t affected, but unprompted recall gets worse under conditions of high cognitive load. So I’ll be fascinated to read what Stephen Mahar et al have found, and whether it’s consistent with our results.

As to whether custom animation might be “bad”, I’m still pretty cautious. John Sweller, the de facto king of Cognitive Load theory, is on the record (for example in Presentation Zen) as being highly critical of PowerPoint, but I’d argue that this is an oversimplification: it’s all about how we use the technology. Slideware*, when used sensibly — i.e. with an eye on cognitive load, design aesthetic, and audience involvement — can be a brilliant tool for learning; I’d love to see a study in which custom animation can be shown to actively contribute to learning, perhaps through more minimalist slide content than that used in the study by Mahar and colleagues.

John Timmer at Ars Technica rightly points out that after slideware hit the classroom, it was a long time before anyone thought to ask whether it was the right tool for the job. I don’t think that’s an unusual response (“Hey! Shiny new technology! Let’s use it … because it’s shiny!”) but I think now that we have a culture of researching instruction, the onus is on educators to demonstrate that the tools they are using are good ones, rather than just being technological magpies. I have no doubt that slideware can be a great teaching tool; it’s up to us to find ways of using it that enhance, rather than detract from, the learning experience.

(By the way, if anyone wants to send me the full article by Mahar et al., my contact details are here, and I’d be much obliged!) Thank you Olivia! Much appreciated.

* Gotta love how it’s never “death by Keynote” :)

Mahar, S. et al (?) (2009). The dark side of custom animation. International Journal of Innovation and Learning, 6, 581-592.

5 Comments

Filed under my stuff, other people's stuff

Pecha Kucha and Ignite: the sonnets of presentation

Sometimes we get our students to give talks – with slides – instead of writing yet another essay. I like this – it challenges them in new ways.  Some students clearly find the experience very uncomfortable (maybe I would have, too, at that age) but it’s always interesting, and sometimes they surprise and delight us.

Mostly, we are fairly strict about the timing: talks are usually in the range of 10 – 15 minutes, plus a little time for questions.  This partly reflects class size: any longer and we would have to find several afternoons in the timetable, instead of two or three; this would be hard, since time (particularly for staff) is at a premium. But even within that small space, students are able to demonstrate the extent of their knowledge and excitement about a particular topic.  In fact, I’d say we’re probably giving them more than enough rope with which to hang themselves.

One of the problems I think students have with giving presentations is that they readily conflate slides, and slide content, with the presentation itself; this is often expressed as reams of text on slide after slide, which students then read aloud.  They’re not thinking about added value – the value they themselves add.  Perhaps this is partly the fault of lecturers and presenters everywhere who do this too, and perhaps institutions – mine included – are to blame for placing the emphasis on making slides available after lectures/presentations/workshops, as though the slides were a ready substitute for the talk.  (They’re not; if they are, we’re in slideument territory.)

So if we’re going to assess students on the basis of their presentations, perhaps we should focus more on actual presentation skills.  I get very excited about Pecha Kucha (20 slides at 20 seconds each: a 6-minute presentation) and Ignite (same format but 15 and 15, giving a 5-minute presentation).  These represent the presentation equivalent of a sonnet: a strict form, but total freedom therein.  Constraints are often a spur to creativity, which is why trying to write haiku is so much fun (graphic designers, pregnant women and those of a nervous disposition may want to steel themselves before clicking; I have never seen such frightening wallpaper).

Of course, there are potential downsides to using this approach: how do we grade a student who just loses it in the moment? Will the presentation content be too simplistic because of the time constraints? Is it even possible to stuff serious academic material inside one of these talks?

But I think there’s a counter-argument to be made there too: five or six minutes is enough to get a message across, but in a really focused way. Both formats force the presenter to think hard about what goes on the slide, and what they’re going to say in the allotted time; they encourage development of real, actual presentation skills.  Ignite and Pecha Kucha also kill Death By Bullet-Point, kill it dead, since you can’t reasonably expect people to read more than a few words in 15 or 20 seconds.

If we shift the focus of making a presentation towards actual presentation skills, that’s surely good for students’ employability.  Presentation skills are increasingly important in our blah blah knowledge economy, and employers want graduates with a bit of polish (yeah yeah, add your Modern Languages jokes to the pile by the door).  And we need polish: I would do almost anything to avoid a repeat of the mortifying shared experience I once had, watching a presenter stumble over one of the fundamental technical terms in her presentation: after the first bungled attempt to pronounce it, she just skipped blithely over it – “yeah, I can’t say that word”. Ouch.

We can do better.

(Sometimes I think about starting an Ignite/Pecha Kucha club here, and then I remember how much free time I don’t have.)

Edit: My husband just pointed out that it’s not unusual at academic conferences to be asked to give a talk lasting less than ten minutes, so maybe it’s possible to squeeze enough science into five or six.

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The Golden Delegate Bridge

(Sorry, that’s a truly appalling title. Let’s move on.)

Just back from the APS annual convention in San Francisco, where I gave a poster and apparently vindicated some people. Which was nice, since everyone got to feel all warm and fuzzy.

The poster was about how putting more material on presentation slides can actually have a deleterious effect on how much is recalled afterwards. And the great thing was, people kept coming up and saying, I’ve thought this for years but never actually tested it. Or, I’ve been doing this; thank you for confirming my theories! Or — and this was my absolute favourite — I want to give a copy of this to all my colleagues.

So it went pretty well. I mean, nobody came up and argued with me
about the work, which I half expected (You did what? How does that prove anything?) I did have some useful discussions about the methodology (we should test recall later/tie it to students’ grades/replicate it in a teaching setting, outside the lab — the latter, at least, is done, though we’re only just about to start looking at the results.) And I got an excellent suggestion about how to test my two opposing theories as to why it all works – though first I need to write up the experiments we’ve actually done.

I also went to some great talks on education and use of technology, which I hope to write about when I’ve finished processing what I want to say about them. One of the unofficial themes of the conference seemed to be that Generation Y (millennials, if you prefer) is relatively narcissistic; another was about the need to eradicate pseudoscience (my colleague the Punk Psychologist would have enjoyed that). But really you could have walked into more or less any hall and found something to get your teeth into.

If there was any disappointment, it was mainly because I didn’t get to talk to enough other people about their pedagogical research, because they were presenting it at the same time as I was – that, and all the stuff I wanted to see, clashed horribly (holding the bulk of the Teaching Institute on one day just seems cruel). But I imagine it’s pretty hard to run a multi-track conference and please everybody all the time.

Bonus: San Francisco is a nice city. People smile there, and it’s
eminently walkable, if you don’t mind serious hills. And the fog! Wow.
San Franciscans dress quite like the Brits (lots of black, even when the sun is out!), perhaps never knowing when the weather is going to turn on them.

I haven’t slept for nearly 30 hours. Take that, body-clock!

Leave a comment

Filed under my stuff, other people's stuff

How to be a presentation rock star

Things people don’t want to hear at the start of your slide presentation:

“Most of you will have seen this talk before …”

— Then why are you giving it? And why haven’t you tailored your talk to this audience? Academics — who are pretty good at wasting time on their own terms, by the way — get fractious when you start wasting it for them.

“I’m just going to skip through a few of these slides, because I know time is short … ” [this is then followed by going through every single slide, point by point, and running over time; people start looking at their watches]

— Actually, this one reminds me of the Marcel Achard quote: “When I give a lecture, I accept that people look at their watches, but what I do not tolerate is when they look at it and raise it to their ear to find out if it stopped.”

Beginnings like these can really lower people’s expectations — about you, and about future presentations in general. That might be me next week, standing up there — don’t make me clean up your mess!

“How to be a presentation rock star” was just a throwaway title I gave this post at the draft stage, until I actually started thinking about it, and then I realised it worked, albeit in a cheesy kind of a way.

1. Be mysterious. Don’t give your presentation. Instead, provide people with a document to read in their own time. Most of us read faster than you can talk, and we can do it at a time that’s convenient for us (I guess this is one reason that why email has been so successful). You may not experience their gratitude overtly, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a fan-base.

2. Be controversial. If you absolutely must present, make it interactive; arrive armed with provocative examples to stimulate your weary audience, who have probably been told that they must come to this meeting and listen to you. (Obligation and motivation are usually not the keenest bedfellows.)

3. Find a catchy hook. If you’re selling something (most presentations are, and this includes teaching — ask anyone who teaches statistics to people who are taking it as a course requirement), pitch me two or three case studies of how people have benefited from it, so my mind starts freewheeling: “Wow, I wonder what I could do with this brilliant resource”. Presentations built around mundane procedures and structures will always be a tough sell. Hell, be bold: skip straight to the Q&A — mostly, people just want to know what’s in it for them.

4. Create rapport. Jim Morrison wasn’t necessarily the world’s greatest musician, but what he did have in spades was charisma. Give your audience as much attention as you lavished on your slides; if you find yourself alone with the sound of your own voice, that’s great if you enjoy tumbleweeds or are steeling yourself for a difficult birth into the world of amateur stand-up comedy — but remember to ask yourself how much the audience paid to get in. If they’re not really present, don’t be afraid to cut it short and go off-road in order to hold their interest. If that means you end up missing a few things out, then that’s okay — just make sure people know where to reach you.

Often, it can be tempting to stick with your plan, however hostile or bored the audience (or perhaps because they’re bored and hostile; your plan is your security blanket). That’s okay: uncharted territory is scary, particularly when other people are involved. But if you want to be a presentation rock star, you need to be ready to do the unpredictable. I’m not suggesting that you crowd-surf or start handing out beer; just be willing to let go of your slides and give yourself up to the moment.

Leave a comment

Filed under other people's stuff

Beauty, abstraction and storytelling

Garr Reynolds, consummate presenter. Check out those slides – just beautiful. I’m a huge fan of his book, too – Garr’s presentational style is really something to aspire to: simple, elegant, and entertaining. Also, he frames everything using stories, something for which I’m a sucker; I think storytelling is an aspect we often ignore when constructing presentations and/or writing slides for teaching, because we get distracted by the structure and format of the slides.

Also, via Garr Reynolds (yeah, okay, this post is just a big, late Valentine) comes this: guy does stuff with moving dots, makes sense. Watch the videos; chew on the method. It’s way easier on the brain than just talking about things in the abstract with no visual aids. Sweet. I’m going to try this next time I have something complicated to explain that doesn’t really come with pictures attached.

Leave a comment

Filed under other people's stuff