Tag Archives: slides

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.

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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.]

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Everything is upside-down: turning lectures into homework with problem-based learning

The other day, I stumbled (via Tony Baldasaro) on this gem:

How much more could happen in our classrooms if we created more opportunities for students to learn basic skills and content outside of class? … Class, rather than being a time when all kids sat and received instruction, could be the time when they reinforce skills by doing problem sets, worked on real-world application projects, collaborated with teachers to reinforce concepts, etc…

The post is called Inversions; go read it, it’s only short.

This is such a wonderful, simple idea. And of course, many good instructors and educators are already doing just that — as Chris Lehmann points out, this is essentially what happens in English class when kids read a book as homework, then discuss it during class time. Students use out-of-class time to acquire content, freeing up class time for process. Because processing, doing, is how we learn, and students can get instant feedback from the instructor. Dialogue happens; moreover, students have the opportunity to learn vicariously from other students’ participation.

But this isn’t happening enough in universities, for reasons I have written about before. Big classes and a student body working to pay university fees — or to be able to afford food — mean that often, lectures become an info-dump, because you can’t guarantee that the majority of students have done the reading — and in my view, good teaching takes up from where the student is, not where they should be.

And I do get tired of the sound of my own voice in a two-hour lecture. Oh, I can teach for two hours; this post isn’t coming from a place of laziness. On some level I am probably even a bit of a show-off, or I probably wouldn’t enjoy teaching as much as I do. But, you know, no matter how enthusiastic I am, just talking for two hours is going to lose even the keenest student for periods of time, as their attention ebbs and flows. Estimates of attention span vary wildly, and a big chunk of that is about whether you are in flow.

Passive listening probably does not encourage flow in our students.

Attention span also varies as a function of ability, which is one reason why it’s so important to teach in a way that reaches everyone. And it’s unreasonable, I think, to expect anyone’s attention to last for a two-hour lecture, which is why so many of my colleagues are currently trying to think of ways to break up the time a bit. (The university schedules two-hour lectures in the way that many people schedule one-hour meetings: it seems to be a convenient and universally-understood unit of time, but may not be exactly what is needed.)

So how about we approach this problem from the other direction: make the classroom about practice, and perhaps we can nurture people’s curiosity in the topic and encourage them to pursue the more detailed background content afterwards?

Obviously this strategy is not without risk. Techniques like problem-based learning (PBL) have been found to improve students’ engagement and critical thinking skills, and students who have used PBL seem to hold their own against students educated more traditionally. But I have heard many concerns expressed that PBL can lead to patchy subject knowledge, though I am having trouble digging up much in the way of evidence for that (if you can help me out here, please leave a comment!). Wikipedia has a nice section on the cognitive load issues around problem-based learning; the key thing seems to be to start gently and gradually withdraw support, with the instructor increasingly becoming more of a facilitator.

I wouldn’t necessarily have tried this with first-year students, who perhaps haven’t acquired enough basic subject knowledge. But final-year students have been up to their elbows in the subject for long enough that I figured I could probably meet them halfway.

So, I rewrote my lecture.

In fact, my slides didn’t actually need a great deal of reworking, though I took some more of the text off them. I made lots of duplicate slides: the first with an image, and a question or two; the second, with simple labels. It was a pretty basic format: here’s some stuff — now figure out what you’re looking at.

PBL hippocampus question.png

And then, when they’d had a few minutes, in small groups, to try and work out what was going on, I’d ask for suggestions, and we’d talk a bit about those, and then I’d show them the second slide:

PBL hippocampus answer.png

… and we’d talk about that for a short while. I started off with some basics, and then we got into more and more complex stuff. Occasionally I would remind them, “start with what you already know.” Students had a worksheet that duplicated the images and questions, so they didn’t waste time and attention copying things down, and could concentrate on the what and why.

We did this for two hours (with a break), in a warm lecture theatre, in the afternoon, and nobody fell asleep. Students asked questions, made guesses. It was genuinely interactive.

In many ways, I was lucky. This lecture was all about the visuals: pictures of brains with stuff wrong with them. Had I been discussing highly abstract and theoretical concepts, it may not have worked well. Further, the lecture theatre was pretty much exactly right for the size of class: small, with about 60 seats and an aisle up the middle. I could, and did, reach all the groups; had we been in the 450-seat lecture theatre with people sprinkled everywhere, much of that class dynamic and atmosphere would have been lost.

Of course, not everything went brilliantly. There was a little too much content, and what I should have done was set the remainder as homework, rather than trying to cram it all in. I lost one group at the break, though this isn’t uncommon and you never really know why they’ve left; often it may be nothing to do with you and everything to do with their personal circumstances, and I never like to ask, in case it really is the latter and they are mortified that you’ve brought it up, or noticed their absence.

I won’t really be able to gauge the success of the session until the exam results, and student module evaluations, are in. But overall, it felt right. It felt like a good way to teach, and I really, really hope it inspired students to tackle the background reading. The explicit feedback I have had from students so far has been pretty positive, and a colleague who sat in on the session to observe seemed to really enjoy it, and said some very nice things. All of which gives me a little more faith in my own experience and enjoyment of the session.

Next stop: trying this again, with a bigger class. Anyone want to play along?

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Stealing From Geeks, Part 2: Educators need to geek out, big time

Other people’s presentation slides used to drive me crazy. “You’ve got Arial and Times New Roman and fifteen lines of text in 14-point font! Those colours are hideous! Stop with the serif fonts already! Are you going to read aloud every point?”

Then I gave up caffeine.

No, really — about two years ago, a casual conversation with my colleague Andy about minimalist slide design in teaching suddenly sat up and grew legs. We went from idle discussion to brainstorming ideas to me going home over Christmas wondering if I would get my brain to slow down to less than 1,000rpm. We managed to secure funding from the Centre for Research-Informed Teaching, and for the last 18 months, we’ve been exploring the effects of using minimalist slide presentations on people’s memory for information. I blog about it, think about it, and chase down ideas that might relate to it. I have even — *shudder* — acquired new skills to pursue it.

In short, I have well and truly geeked out over my research. And it feels great.

I posted last(ish) time about how education can learn from the technology sector by growing its own storytellers and role models, but I think there’s plenty more to take away from the home of geek, starting with trying to become one.

Here’s the thing they don’t tell you in school: your inner geek is the most powerful learning resource you will ever have. It’s the thing keeping you at your computer or from putting down your book until well past bedtime; the thing needling you with “Hey, that’s interesting …” It holds your attention when you’re unfocused; delights or enrages you in the face of apathy or exhaustion. Your inner geek won’t rest until it consumes you in the fire of your own attention.

Harness this awesome power, and you can do nearly anything you want: a geek illuminated from within by the source of their own geeky pleasure is one of the brightest lights in the universe.

Geek, should you need to know how to get there, is basically a place where your interests and your strengths meet:

your geek space.png

(And since we’re on a Venn diagram jag, why not check whether you’re a dweeb, a geek, a nerd, or a dork?)

Getting in touch with your inner geek is the fast track to achievement. Over the last two years, I’ve worked harder than I ever worked in my life — yes, even during my Ph.D. — and I’ve loved every minute. Hard work isn’t all that hard if it’s doing something you love. I also got to take our work to conferences in San Francisco and Corfu; being a geek comes with some pretty cool perks. (Okay, so I also got to go to Milton Keynes. This was a useful exercise in humility.)

Geeking out provides students with good role models, giving them permission to indulge their own intellect and curiosity. Show me a good educator, and I’ll show you someone whose teaching involves some variation on “Hey, look at this — isn’t that cool?” Students need to see that geeking out can lead to rewarding careers. Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman of Mythbusters have become poster-boys for scientific curiosity, but they also get invited to the Emmys. I want to give them both a big hug for making being a geek cool; the cooler being curious and knowledgeable becomes, the easier it will be for students everywhere to own their inner geek and move forward in the world.

Education can help shape a culture in which geeking out is not just socially acceptable, but actually desirable. One of the big lies often peddled about geeks is that we’re happiest alone. I don’t think that’s true: the internet in its current form basically exists because geeks liked talking to other geeks. (Or at least reading about them from a safe distance.) When geeks hook up and reinforce their shared geekiness, amazing things happen. You see this in academic departments and at conferences where conversations blossom into full-on nerdouts as two or more people realise they have an interest in common, often kicking off with “Hey, do you know if … ?” It happened to me; you wouldn’t be reading this if it hadn’t.

Most technological developments of the last two decades (centuries? millennia?) were created by geeks who didn’t care whether people knew they were smart; who didn’t worry about looking cool, because they were too busy chasing down their idea. Education needs to reclaim that indifference to what’s “cool” and set about showing that growing and following a passion is one of the most rewarding — and genuinely cool — things you can do.

We don’t geek out enough; we certainly don’t let our students see us geeking out enough. Understanding and enjoying focused obsession is far too good a thing to keep all to ourselves.

Geek out, and don’t look back.

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Teaching naked in the age of big education

PowerPoint is currently making headlines in education, though probably not for the reasons Microsoft would like.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that José Bowen of Southern Methodist University has banished computers from his classrooms:

Mr. Bowen wants to discourage professors from using PowerPoint, because they often lean on the slide-display program as a crutch rather using it as a creative tool. Class time should be reserved for discussion, he contends, especially now that students can download lectures online and find libraries of information on the Web.

That same article in the Chronicle cites research conducted by my colleague Sandi Mann, showing that many students find lectures boring, and that the most commonly-cited reason for this is use of PowerPoint.

So perhaps ‘teaching naked’ (sans PowerPoint, gentle reader) might cure students’ boredom and encourage instructors to write more creative, interactive classes?

Well, while I’m curious to know where José Bowen’s nebulous ‘often’ statistic comes from, it may be true that lack of confidence encourages instructors to rely more on slides: in a recent pilot study, Andy Morley and I found that of the university lecturers we surveyed, 91% said that since starting teaching, they had reduced the amount of text they used on their slides. We interpret this to mean that increased practice leads to increased confidence; the more comfortable you are with your subject, the less material you ‘need’ on the slide. However, it’s still a big leap from there to asserting that instructors routinely use slides “as a crutch”; there are plenty of other reasons they might choose to use slides, something Mr Bowen apparently chooses to overlook.

There are really two issues in play here: taking slides out of the classroom, and making higher education more interactive. They’re kind of all twisted up together, so here are my thoughts about teaching naked, and why student engagement and class size present such a knotty problem in this era of massification and McDonaldization in HE.

1. Large class sizes turn higher education into a broadcast medium

Maybe José Bowen only teaches small classes. If so, he is very fortunate, because small-group teaching is brilliant. It allows instructors to get to know their students and allows students to engage, make mistakes, and ask questions in a relatively low-pressure environment.

But try getting students to do these things surrounded by 300 of their peers — it’s like pulling teeth. Not to mention that you need a decent pair of lungs, or a microphone, to maintain order. On this scale, education is pretty much a broadcast medium, and there’s not much you can do about it except ensure that, when you are talking (which really shouldn’t be all the time), you have appropriate visual aids, since we know these benefit learning.

So no, teaching naked is not necessarily the best thing to do when you have really big classes, as many of us do. It might be appropriate, but then you also need to consider that:

2. Teaching naked is more suitable to some subject areas than others

Some of my colleagues teach slideless, and their lectures are enduringly popular, seemingly undiminished by the absence of visual aids. To take one example, material in social psychology is rarely inherently visual; what’s important is the ability to spin a decent yarn, and I am glad to know and work with people who exemplify this approach.

But when I give lectures (remember, 300 students) on neuroanatomy or the visual system, I show diagrams, because then students can see what I am talking about. I could, of course, describe the brain’s visual pathways in excruciating detail, but students would soon be adrift in a sea of unfamiliar anatomical terminology, and I expect my lectures would be bitterly unpopular. Why add unnecessarily to the lecture’s extraneous cognitive load? Writers everywhere know the answer: show, don’t tell.

Of course, I don’t have to use slides as my visual aids, but they’re a highly visible medium that I know I can use well in large classes, so I use ’em. (Your mileage may vary.) But this then throws up a whole new problem:

3. Students expect that their classes are about information delivery.

Slides have become a big part of this expectation. Yes folks, we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t: students have been known to complain when staff don’t use lecture slides, or don’t make them available. There are probably many reasons for this (ease of note-taking, knowing how to spell technical terminology, zoning out and missing something critical, or missing the entire lecture and needing a frame of reference — and no doubt there are plenty more), but I think they all boil down to the importance of possessing information.

Implicit in this delivery model of education is the suggestion that students are passive vessels into which learning is transferred via their attendance at lectures, a situation which may be exacerbated by use of slide-based handouts. The Chronicle notes that:

The biggest resistance to Mr. Bowen’s ideas has come from students, some of whom have groused about taking a more active role during those 50-minute class periods.

Of course, if students are to take a more active role than sitting in lectures, this requires that they have done some reading around the topic. But getting students to do even basic reading prior to class isn’t that straightforward; for one thing, since the introduction of tuition fees, many students now hold down part-time or even full-time jobs to pay their way through university. I have known students choose modules on the basis of what will fit around work, rather than their own academic interests, and I have found out the hard way that even when you say “this prior reading is mandatory for the session”, you either quickly reduce the number of people coming to that class, or end up adapting the session to accommodate those students who have not, despite your advice, done the reading. So here too, ‘teaching naked’, if we take that to mean ‘facilitating student discussions of material they have read outside class, in the absence of computers or other overt delivery methods’, might not work well.

So, should I kick computers out of my lecture theatre?

My honest feeling is that that teaching naked, much as I admire the principle, isn’t always compatible with how big higher education actually functions. We do have small-group teaching, and we try to keep that as interactive as possible, but plenty of our teaching is still lecture-based, and I think it’s a mistake to rejected computers (and slideware) out of hand, no matter how cool it is to diss PowerPoint right now*.

Fundamentally, it’s dogmatic to apply any hardline approach, whether that be ‘no slides’ or ‘slides all the way’. Educators are supposed to be smart — so let’s act like it.

* Actually, it’s been cool for quite a while. Lincoln took some stick about the Gettysburg Address and it all sort of snowballed from there.

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The McDonaldization of technology in education – do you want slides with that?

ICICTE is all about people who use technology in education. This is a pretty broad aegis, which I think is great — highly specialist conferences sometimes seem in danger of disappearing up their own abstracts.

So I went along to ICICTE last week to tell people about our work with lecture slides and lecturers’ attitudes to slides, but conferences are all about the exchange of ideas, and I spent most of my visit listening to other people talk about their work.

I’m always fascinated to watch others interact with slideware and their audience, and the breadth of experiences that ensue. Standing up, sitting down, talking around the slides, reading out bits from slides, skipping over the slides. One sentence per slide; 21 lines of dense text (yes, I am sad enough to count). Ten slides, forty slides; both for a 12-minute presentation. Once they know what my research involves, people sometimes get a bit twitchy about their own slides (now I think about it, not unlike the reaction when you tell them you’re a psychologist — apparently I’m building a career on making people nervous), but I try not to be judgemental: variety is the spice of life — and anyway, someone might turn my results upside-down tomorrow.

One speaker I particularly enjoyed was Kevin Burden, who talked about furthering educators’ personal and professional development using ICT. He talked about the need to filter technology by its qualities and suitability for the task at hand: for example, blogging is a great way to promote teacher reflection, but might not be such a great tool for peer interaction. Essentially, he was promoting mindful use of technology.

Mindful use of technology is a real issue in education. Kevin’s approach is much more considered than the kind often taken by institutions, which have the amazing ability to issue blanket edicts (e.g., “Thou Shalt Use Blackboard”) without necessarily considering whether it’s in the best interests of the staff or students involved. I have nothing against Blackboard, and I support wholeheartedly the emergence of VLEs, but I sometimes think their implementation would be better left to relevant teaching staff. (Then again, to get everyone on board, sometimes you just have to legislate, because nature abhors cognitive dissonance)

Kevin’s talk got me thinking — again — about use of visual aids in teaching, and why people started using software like PowerPoint in the first place. Obviously it looked much better, more professional, than scrawled or photocopied overhead transparencies — and, like other new media, it was easily editable, copyable and redistributable. All great reasons for adopting a new technology.

But how many people used the jump from one form of technology to another to pause for a moment and reflect on whether these visual aids were always the right tools for the job?

Not very many; we see that now in the near-ubiquitous use of electronic slides to support lectures. So prevalent is the notion that lectures must have slides that when students miss a lecture, they don’t ask what we covered: they ask for a copy of the slides. To students, the slides are the lecture.

Which does make me wonder what value anyone thinks we’re adding by standing there at the front and clicking now and again to make the slides transition.

Simon Schurville, in his ICICTE keynote,* discussed the massification and McDonaldization of higher education: the idea that to deliver the same experience to so many, a very simple, identical, easily-replicable product is required. He asked, Is this really what we want higher education to be like?

I thought about the McDonaldization of lecture slides. Do we honestly want students’ experience of university, the world over, to consist of staring at yet another mindless set of bullet-points? Do we really want to foster the expectation that a lecture is not a lecture unless every point is clearly laid out in 24-point Times New Roman, up there on the screen and right there in front of you in all its dead-tree reproduced glory?

In short, do you really want slides with that?

* Sadly, Simon was taken ill a couple of days before the conference; the keynote was delivered in his absence by Greg Anderson and Raymond Welch.

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Harvey: why every educator needs a pet pain in the ass

My friend Harvey is in the enviable position of being an instructor and having a job in the real world. (He insists he’s not an academic, but among his many other talents, he’s a damn fine educator.)

Harvey is routinely upset by the extent to which ostensibly prosaic ideas about education are treated as revolutionary. For example, I was tweeting about George Papandreou‘s speech at ICICTE, and how he was evangelising the need to empower people to understand and use technology, and the need to educate them about how to evaluate information and judge its authenticity. It was basic reportage; this guy might be Greece’s next Prime Minister — his father served as PM, by the way, so there’s precedent — and it was interesting to hear what he had to say about the intersection of education and technology. Asher Rospigliosi summarises the key points here.

I thought Papandreou talked a good game; nothing very new, to a conference of people already sold on the adoption of technology in education, but he expressed himself very clearly and seemed to have genuine commitment to change. He gave a brief nod to Barack Obama when he said that it was important to educate people about the coming changes and the responsibilities those would bring (he did explicitly mention Obama, though I’m sure I wasn’t the only one wondering whether Greece’s leader of the opposition is also a secret Spider-man fan).

So I tweeted some of the key points of George Papandreou’s address, and Harvey was all, like, “Yeah, and? This ain’t rocket-science.” (I paraphrase; I think his original tweet used the phrase “bleedin’ obvious”.)

This comes on the back of conversations with Harvey in which he was dismayed to learn that educators do not routinely make deliberate use of narrative in structuring their lessons; that they are not all aware of the complex attentional demands created by having to read dense text off slides during a lecture; that they are not, in short, necessarily all that educated about attention and learning, outside their own subject areas.

So by now you’re probably thinking that Harvey is a royal smart-ass and world-class know-it-all, right?

Well, yeah.

But the thing with Harvey is that he’s way ahead of the curve in terms of adopting narrative in his teaching, encouraging student interaction, making appropriate and minimalist use of visual aids, etc. Much of this is surely down to his non-traditional background and subject specialism, but a substantial chunk of it is absolutely down to his being a professional pain in the ass.

And I love it.

Because, when Harvey points out that this stuff is, to use his terminology, bleedin’ obvious, it encourages me to test the things he take for granted, to be able to demonstrate empirically that they work. I work in science, and we’re all about evidence; pretty soon now I hope to publish a paper on why minimalist slides are so important for learning, and then I can approach my colleagues and say “Look: here are the numbers. This really works.”

Critically, I know the concepts I’m championing are not in widespread use right now, else educational conferences wouldn’t keep inviting me to present my work. (Okay, so really, there’s nothing new under the sun; but maybe these ideas need to be recycled once in a while — we’re certainly in need of them right now as we struggle to avoid being derailed by the very technology we seek to promote.)

What I’m trying to say is this: having my ass kicked on a regular basis about the fundamentals of teaching, by someone with a bit of objectivity, galvanises me to educate my colleagues — because if I’m learning anything from my travels in educational research, it’s that there are many educators out there to whom this stuff is often far from obvious.

Thank you, Harvey; education needs more pains in the ass like you.

[This article has been edited since its original posting; this is what happens when your posting deadline is the lifespan of your laptop battery.]

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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.

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