Saturday, March 21, 2015

Presentation Zen and the powerpoint presentation

I remember the first major assignment for my AP English class was to develop a presentation about the women in Macbeth, Death of a Salesman, All My Sons, and Cyrano de Bergerac. The instruction we were given was to not be boring. This was before the advent of laptops, power points and easy projection technology. I still can see Dan's presentation where he dressed as an old lady darning a sock and talked about the women in these plays. It was fascinating. To grade it, our teacher had a rubric and had to pay attention because it was ephemeral. Within a minute of the presentation, the grading was done and the next student was on the hot seat. Today, I feel certain the request would have been for a power point or Prezi on the topic. Unfortunately, most of the presentations would be word for word on the screen, the teacher could grade it without the student presence and the other students could sleep in the darkened room.

Garr Reynolds' book PresentationZen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery looks scathingly upon the typical power point and describes how to improve presentations with the use of visuals. Typical student presentations, and other business presentations for that matter, are a series of bulleted slides that encompass every detail to be discussed. While we want students to discover and describe the indirect characterization of the protagonist, their presentations had better not have anything indirect about them. We want it spelled out and read- but then we are bored and disgusted with their presentations. If my presentation removes me from having to be an expert about what I am talking about, if I do not even need to be there because you are literate, what is the point of my being there? This is certainly one of the main themes of the book. Power point is to support, bring emotion to and enhance a presentation, not to be the sum total of information being presented.

As teachers, this is a lesson we need to take to heart. If we are preparing students for the real world, presentations cannot be about animated lists, colorful backgrounds and slides with more words than a children's book. Yet we demand that they demonstrate use of animation (kids need to know how to do this), intense detail (we have to grade the content) and the kids can read it verbatim to us and that is good enough. In fact we argue that such a presentation is better for our struggling readers and writers because they do not need to write an organized essay. We are being so misguided.

First, we are doomed to bad presentations if we do not teach presentation skills. Erik Palmer's PV-LEGS concept embraces this idea. He breaks presentation skills into poise, voice, life, eye contact, gestures and speed. More ideas around this concept can be found at his website here. This is the beginning of teaching kids that a strictly read, head-down, lifeless presentation is bad no matter what. Reynolds touches on many of these points- mostly around engaging with the audience and having visuals reinforce what you say, not say what you say.

Second, Reynolds points out that an effective presentation is well-organized and well understood. A student needs to play with the information to get it to be focused and organized. Reynolds suggests one theme and up to three supporting points. (Think a five paragraph essay- introduce theme, three paragraphs to support it, and wrap it up with a conclusion.) This format makes the presentation equitable with the essay. The key being that every detail is not written, but the details are fleshed out in speech. The student must really understand what he is talking about. For struggling learners this may be even more intimidating.

A third point that Reynolds focuses on is the simplicity of the slide. Little text, few bullets, only pictures and animation that reinforce the theme. We have all been to presentations where the font size of the slide was such that it was illegible. If we cannot read it why put it there? If we can get away with only reading it, why do you need the presenter? Slides must be error free. I remember a presentation a student put on for the school board. It lasted about 5 minutes. There was a there-their error. I immediately thought less of the student. All the animation that the student had spent lots of time on became meaningless in light of the error in grammar that every senior in high school should be aware of checking for. Fewer words per slide may mean you need to know your material better, but it does allow less opportunity for errors. Use slides to build emotional connection with the audience, identify key terms, bring pertinent quotes to life, and showcase powerful data not list what you are saying.

A fourth point was that there should three things prepared- the power point slide deck, the notes for the presenter, and a takeaway packet meant to be read by the audience with links to where more information can be found. When I first was introduced to this idea I thought- what about my students who cannot get the information from the lecture? Where will they be if they cannot fall back on reading the information. Research says that reading the slide takes away from the cognitive capacity to listen to the speaker. Yes, my students need a takeaway but overloading with information in a lecture is not the way to do it. Smartboards detract from achievement if they are not used to increase opportunities to respond and reinforce learning. If we are only using power point to restate what I said, we are wasting the Smartboard's potential. The takeaway is where my students get what they missed. A good classroom presentation has lots of opportunity to interact with the presentation through activities like think-pair-share, journal an idea, live polling and checking for understanding questions and activities.

Another takeaway was on building a presentation- especially a group presentation. Reynolds suggests having ideas written on post-it notes. Rearrange the notes to identify the key theme, organize the ideas and remove the extraneous ones. A presentation cannot include every good idea. It needs to be streamlined. Writing on paper, moving around the notes and adding comments to clarify and fill in holes is a great organizational tool to use BEFORE getting to the computer.

This book is artfully crafted. It weaves stories, slide examples, quotes and information together in an easy to read format. It provides guidance on designing powerful slides- something we as teachers need to take to heart, especially if we are asking students to give presentations. We want to prepare them for the real world. We must, therefore, prepare them to create presentations that do not bore us senseless or render their presence meaningless. We must teach them how to talk and how to present information. The first step is in not asking ourselves to be movie producers or list builders, but to be high quality presenters ourselves. We need to change our status quo and move on to something more effective and meaningful.

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