6 Tips for Compelling Presentations

As a CTQ Teacherpreneur, I’ve had some incredible opportunities to present in the past three months. I’ve written about presenting at the national Teaching and Learning Conference as well as a Senate briefing panel. More recently I’ve been able to present to a group of diverse educators at the inaugural Ideas Fest and the final convening of the rockstar group of TN teacher fellows involved in SCORE. Through these different opportunities, I’ve been able to practice what I preach to my students about how to engage an audience. And, as one might predict, I’ve also learned much through these experiences about the art of presenting–how to craft visually engaging slides, how to connect with the audience early and throughout the presentation, how to consider logistics of the physical space, and how to prepare for success.

In the spirit of sharing, I wanted to do a round-up post of tips for teachers who are planning a presentation or who may be helping students refine their presentation skills.

Tip 1: Slides are free!

Because of the terrible default slide layouts in PowerPoint (also our default presentation tool), we are programed to think that every slide should have a title followed by bullets and occassionally an image. NO! Instead, every slide should have ONE compelling image, sentence or quote that reinforces one idea. A combination of an image and a quote or an image and a sentence can be used to convey this idea, but please, let’s give up on this idea that we need to have so much text on our slides.

The “Rule of One” can help you remember this concept–one image, one quote, one sentence for every slide or frame of your presentation. In presentations, less is more when thinking about each slide or frame as a visual aid to enhance your message.

I have linked a few resources below that have helped me develop an eye for creating clean, uncluttered slides. I also use these resources when teaching my students how to create presentations.

Before and After Slides [PDF] Garr Reynolds

Design Principles: How To Guide [PDF] Todd Reubold

Presentation Zen  [blog] Garr Reynolds

“How do Give Awesome PowerPoint”

Wienot Films

“You Suck at PowerPoint”  & “Steal This Presentation” [slide decks] Jesse Desjardins

“Death by PowerPoint”

Death by PowerPoint” [slide deck] Alexei Kapterev

Tip 2: Bullets kill…presentations.

Comedian Don McMillan points this out in his humorous YouTube clip “Life after Death by PowerPoint.” I love using this clip as an introduction to a unit on presentation skills. First, because it’s humorous. Secondly, because it serves as catharsis for my soul which dies a little each time I see a terrible PowerPoint presentation.

 

Don points to many mistakes people make in creating PowerPoints, but the one I want to emphasize is this: bullets are NOT necessary for an effective presentation. In fact, some of the best TedTalks and presentations I’ve seen had ZERO bullets. Again, ignore PowerPoint’s default layouts, and instead, follow the Rule of One.

If you feel that bulleted points are a must, than follow this lesser rule: the “Rule of Three.” One bullet looks embarrassingly like the person who showed up at the wrong address for a dinner party. Four bullets begins to feel like a crowded room. Slides are free–if you need another slide for another point, USE IT!

Tip 3: A picture is worth a thousand words.

Notice how that famous cliche doesn’t say “Clip art is worth a thousand words”? That’s because clip art is worth nothing. Ok, that was a little harsh. Let me back-peddle: clip art is usually not worth your time. Instead, as a presenter, you should be looking for high quality photographs that illustrate the idea you want to convey. (That ONE idea you want to convey on each slide, right?)

Some Pro Tips for using images responsibly:

  • Don’t EVER just save an image from quick Google Image search. You could be potentially committing plagiarism and maybe, in a worst cast scenario, opening yourself up to liability. Instead, ensure that your images have been licensed for reuse or “Creative Commons.”
  • Use the sites identified in this blog post to find images labeled public domain to avoid both plagiarism and the necessity of attribution.
  • If you can’t find the perfect public domain image, go to Flickr and use their search bar. Then (before you fall in love with any of the results), find the drop down menu for “Licenses” and choose “Creative Commons only.” If this explanation was confusing, click here for a video tutorial of the process.
  • Provide attribution for ALL images in your presentation that were used with Creative Commons licensing. I list these either in small print on the slide (see below) or at the end of the presentation, arranging the citations in order of appearance. Ideally in each citation you want to include the creator of the image, a link to the original image, and the online tool used to access the image.

Finding, downloading, and providing attribution to images can take a HUGE amount of time. So I’ve begun to build my own photo library to use in my presentation. I love taking pictures with my iPhone, and every few months I will organize them by giving them titles and placing them in folder. This process is still evolving for me, but I have folders titled “Symbolic” and “Classroom” that develop a personal system of images for my own use. This system allows quick access to images that reinforce my presentation content. Look for opportunities to take pictures in your classroom (make sure you protect privacy of students unless you have permissions!) that will later help you illustrate a point about collaboration or perseverence. Be aware and empowered to create the images you would want to surface in a Google search! When I use my own images in my presentation, I save time searching, downloading, and providing attribution. So my audience doesn’t think I just took the images, I usually verbally mention that the images in the presentation are my own which is why they lack attribution.

Final pro tip for using images: If you are looking for an image to interact with text on a slide (i.e. quotes, statistics, bar graph), search for images with a white background. Then, use white background for your slides, and the image will look seemlessly designed. See example below.

Slide from Garr Reynolds: “Before and After Slides”

 

Tip 4: Be a storyteller.

Humans connect through story. Our educational roots began around campfires where the oral tradition passed down lessons from the elders for the next generation. Look at your message, the content of your presentation, and find the story. If you are presenting to people who are not educators, find the story from your classroom that illustrates the concept. If you are speaking to teachers, find an experience in your own professional growth that connects with the message or content you are about to deliver.

Stories connect you to your audience. They make a point memorable, and they provide an emotional appeal that can outlast the facts and figures you may so eloquently cite. Open and/or close your presentation with anecdotes. Or, if you can, view your entire presentation as a story. Who are the protagonists? Antagonists? Conflicts? Resolution? Some presentations could be transformed if the presenters choose to re-frame their content as a story rather than a slide deck.

You can also use the story of place to connect to your audience immediately. I learned this tip from Guy Kawasaki, marketing and presentation guru. When visiting a new place, take a few minutes to explore the building or neigborhood and take pictures. Then, use one or more of those pictures as your opening slide(s). Talk about what surprised you, impressed you, puzzled you, or made you laugh. This is can help you to acknowledge your audience–letting them know that you see their unique place and know it holds value. It can also convey that you are a learner–ready to understand and explore the unfamiliar. This works particularly well if you are presenting to a local audience. It may be less effective if your audience, like you, is a visitor in this presentation. The first time I tried this was in Nashville where the night before my morning session, I walked to the tourist-filled Broadway street and snapped this photo.

I then joked to a roomful of Tennessee teachers that after two hours in Nashville I would now make gross generalizations about all Tennessee residents from this one photo. First, they are so hard-working, they still use their down time to be productive. Secondly, they value the leadership of women as they clearly let this one lead. Finally, they are innovative: putting two unlikely activities together for a completely new experience. The audience laughed with me, so I can only hope it served as an effective introduction to our time together.

One caution about stories: some are not yours to tell. In the recent viral post “What I wish my teacher knew about me…” the teacher received push-back from those who pointed out that these stories were shared with the teacher privately, and that parents who were essentially “outed” through their child’s response may not have had any chance to approve their story being told to the public in this forum. If you are using your own story, be careful to protect the identity of those involved unless you have express permission from them to share. If you are telling a story of a student, change the name and identifying details so that his/her privacy is protected (again, unless you have permission from both the student and his/her guardian).

Bottom line: stories have power; weild it wisely.

Tip 5: Do your homework.

Like a football game, orchestra preformance, or musical, the bulk of the work is not in the hour-long performance for the public. Instead, what makes performances great is the hours of preparation leading into the public display. Great presentations take a tremendous amount of preparation. I’ve already outlined a few tips that add time to the presentation preparation: finding images responsibly, throwing out the default templates, creating more slides with less information, and exploring a new place. But there is additional work that can help your presentation shine. Like we tell our students: if you do your homework, you will be well prepared for the assessment.

Presentation Homework

Research your audience. Will you be speaking to a mixed audience of school board members and administration? Will you be speaking to teachers who have had previous professional development on iPads? What grade levels are represented? Once you know who is in the room, take time to think about the perspectives of this audience: what evidence will move them to change? What stories will challenge them to think beyond their current scope? What questions will push them to go deeper with a concept? Depending on how familiar you are with the audience will depend on how much time you will need to invest in this step.

Understand the space. Ask questions about the set-up of the room. Are people sitting in rows or at tables? Will you be on stage or able to move through the audience? Will the room be connected to a sound system? Does the projector have a dongle (Apple users will get this!) that fits your device? Will the audience have access to wifi and have they been asked to bring technology? If the devil is in the details, you want to be on top of him. A great presentation could be completely derailed by assumptions and unasked questions. In a recent session, we planned on leading a gallery walk for the audience. I showed up with masking tape, push pins, and velcro strips because I wanted to be prepared for whatever surfaces were available. I used all three.

Plan for audience interaction. Once you have asked the logistical questions above, you can plan to have the audience interact. At a recent conference, the Keynote presenter had the roomful of 300 educators divide into teams to play a Kahoot game. You should have heard the room erupt after each round when the winning teams were announced! No one was nodding off during this session. Audience interaction is just “student engagement” for adults. We know it’s important in the classroom, so we should transfer that skill to our adult learning spaces. With or without technology, plan to have your audience interact with you throughout the presentation.

Reherse, Revise, Repeat. Write out a script for your presentation. I have my students do this in the “notes” section underneath PowerPoint or Google Presentation slides, but you can put them anywhere. You could even use a voice-to-text app to speak them into written text. Whatever fits you best. The point is, write it out. Then, read it out loud to hear awkward words and identify any places where the verbal script is too long for the slide. Finally, practice using your written script only as a reference point as you advance through your slides. DO NOT MEMORIZE THE SCRIPT! The point of this exercise is to become so familiar with your content that as you advance through your presentation, your slides act as visual reminders for what you want to say. You may not recite your script perfectly, and that’s the point. Your audience will disengage if you are more focused on reciting something than having a conversation with them. The verbal part of your presentation must feel conversational and natural. It takes practice to appear casual and comfortable.

Fake it til’ you make it. In her now famous TedTalk, Amy Cuddy presents research proving that our body language not only influences the way we are perceived by others but also the way we understand ourselves. Watch the TedTalk, it is worth your time. Then, come up with your own routine for tricking your mind into feeling completely confident as you approach your public-speaking event. Take notice of how your feel wearing different clothes or shoes. Among some of my female teacher friends, we reference “shoe confidence”–a concept where choosing certain shoes automatically helps us feel more confident taking the stage. Find your version of shoe confidence and wield it to fight off the pre-speaking jitters.

 

Tip 6: Ask for Feedback.

This is simply good teaching: create a feedback loop. After a recent presentation, I sent a six-question Google Form to the organizers and also Tweeted the link to the participants. I want to know what parts of the presentation were most useful and how I can grow for next time. Seeking feedback reinforces the message that you are a learner and you respect your audience. It also provides valuable perspective on the success of your planning, preparation, and delivery. An important reflection for every presentation: were the goals met for this event? You won’t know unless you ask.

 

When speaking to a small audience, you could reserve time at the end of your session to ask volunteers to share out one take-away and one question. If speaking to a large audience, you could use tools like Poll Everywhere to grab some quick reponses. If your presentation is to administration or school board members in your district, be sure to send a follow-up email to them that includes a convenient way for them to provide feedback to you. The feedback loop will vary depending on the context and tools available, but it is a vital step regardless.


I hope this round-up of tips has been helpful for you! I compiled a Google Doc of links for further reading or help. If there is a presentation tip you have picked up along the way, please include it in the comments. Let’s make this a one-stop shop for educators to find presentation inspiration!

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