Thank you to everyone who attended my presentation at the JALT National Conference in Hamamatsu last Saturday. Even though it was labelled as a commercial presentation, I think there were around thirty people there, so it seems that a lot of teachers are interested in this topic.
As I said on Saturday, the point is not to give perfect presentations every time, but to be constantly striving to give better ones. I have lost count of the number of presentations I have watched over the years that have been completely ruined by the presenter’s lack of preparation and / or inappropriate use of technology. If you google the phrase “Death by Powerpoint,” you will find that I am not unusual in this respect!
Some people have suggested to me that poor technique is mainly a problem for new presenters, but unfortunately, this is not the case. I watched one presentation by a very experienced presenter at the weekend that despite being very good in many respects also contained at least three of the mistakes I focussed on in my session, and at every major conference I hear complaints about plenary and featured speakers. It is both surprising and depressing that professional educators can be such poor presenters.
One member of the audience at my presentation said he liked the fact that I had focussed on what presenters should not do rather than what they should do. His point was that there are many “correct” or “good” ways to do a presentation, so it is better to focus on things that people need to steer clear of. I agree. I am not trying to tell people how to do their presentations, but simply suggesting that there are a number of pitfalls that we all need to avoid.
Here is a video of the presentation followed by a video of the slides and a list of the points I discussed. (The videos will make more sense if you read the article first.)
The first thing to be aware of when you are setting up is that the audience will be able to see your desktop. (The “Kitty” desktop is not my normal choice, by the way!) In my opinion, desktops are a bit like underwear: yours may be very nice, but I don’t want to see it during a presentation. Desktops often contain highly personal files such as emails and photos, and care should be taken not to put these on public display. Wherever possible, set-up should be completed in such a way that the first thing the audience sees is your title slide. Where this is not possible, create an empty desktop that contains nothing but the Powerpoint file you are going to use. It is also a good idea to create a desktop background of the logo of the conference at which you are presenting. This will look much more professional if the audience does have to look at your desktop at any point.
Another key point about set-up is getting the technology working smoothly. It goes without saying (well, it should, anyway!) that presenters need to be familiar with the program they are using and the settings on their own computers. Unfortunately, presenters often have no control over other equipment in the room, so try to get in there at some point before your presentation to test it out. Where this is not possible, make sure you know who to contact in the event that you cannot get it to work properly. Finally, remember that no matter how well you have prepared or how “tech-savvy” you are, machines are machines, and it is always possible that they will simply break down. For this reason, always be prepared to go “unplugged” and give your presentation without a computer.
A title slide should contain basic details about your presentation, but try to avoid overloading it with information. When you begin talking, do not look at the slide, as doing so makes it appear that you are having to remind yourself of who you are and why you are there. For many presenters, the slides become a kind of “safety blanket” that guides them through their presentation. Looking up at the slides, particularly when there is clearly no need to, is the mark of a poor presenter.
A good presenter should move around over the course of a presentation, but finding the right balance can be tricky. Standing like a robot behind a podium for an hour is an obvious no-no (although I have seen at least two plenary speakers do it at JALT), but running around like a chicken with its head cut off is not great either. To a certain extent, finding the right balance will depend on your personal style, but there are a few basic rules that you need to be aware of. Firstly, make sure that you stay near the screen when you want people to look at your slides. If you are at the other side of the room, the audience will end up feeling as if they are watching a game of tennis as they turn their heads to look alternatively at you and then at the slides. Secondly, try to avoid walking in front of the projector. Every presenter should use a remote control to operate the computer, but if you do not have one, make sure that the computer is near enough for you to reach it easily. Finally, make sure that you engage with the whole audience. Do not turn your back on anyone, and do not focus excessively on any person, group of people, or area of the room. If you are not sure whether you are getting the balance right, ask a friend to observe your presentation and give you feedback on it afterwards.
Your presentation software will probably give you a wide range of choice of what are called “slide transitions.” This is the effect created when you move from one slide to the next, and there is only one that you will ever need. On a Mac, it is called “none.” I’m not sure what it is in Powerpoint, but the principle is the same – do not use fancy slide transitions. Transitions may look cool on your computer, and you may like to use them when you show photos to your friends and family, but they are just an annoying distraction when you give a presentation.
Your software will also tempt you with all kinds of effects for moving text and objects into, around, and off the screen. Let me try to explain my feelings about this in a reasoned and calm way.
Do not fall into this trap.
Animation is evil.
Avoid it like the plague.
I hope that has made my position on animation quite clear.
Slides as Notes
Slides can play many roles in a presentation, but there is one role that they should never play. Your slides are not an autocue or a series of “memory joggers” to help you to remember what comes next. Do not look at your slides as you talk, and never, never, ever read from them. I’ll say that again, because if you forget everything else you read here, I hope you will remember this one point:
Do. Not. Read. From. Your. Slides.
The only exception to this is if you have someone in your audience who is visually impaired. When you actually do the presentation, your slides will inevitably help you to remember the main points you want to talk about, but they should not be created simply for that purpose.
The Most Important Point
Because presenters have become so reliant on technology, many seem to think that there has to be an accompanying slide for everything they say. If they want to show an image and then talk about something else before moving on to a graph, people will often create a “filler” slide that serves no purpose other than reminding the presenter of what they are supposed to be talking about. In these situations, you have two choices: firstly, you can switch off the computer temporarily using the “b” button (makes the screen go blank) or the “w” button (makes the screen go white). As far as I am aware, these shortcuts work in both Powerpoint and Keynote. Alternatively, you can project an image connected with your topic that will help the audience to remember what you say.
When you set up elements of a slide to appear in a particular order, be careful with the first element. If you want it to be visible when you transition from the previous slide, make sure it is set up to appear “automatically after transition.” Failure to do this can result in a moment of panic when you transition to what appears to be a blank slide. Of course, this problem should not arise if you have rehearsed your presentation, so if it does, it becomes pretty obvious to your audience that you haven’t.
Bullet points are often painted as the greatest villains of bad presentations, and with good reason. In most cases, this is because presenters are using them as a memory aid. Remember that slides do not cost any money. If you want to separate points by bullet, think about whether it may be better to separate them by slide instead. Unless it is important that the audience still be able to see the last point while you explain the next, it is usually better to move to a new slide for each new point. Of course, this ignores the question of whether there needs to be any text accompanying the point you are explaining in the first place, which in 99% of cases, there doesn’t. If you do decide to use bullet points, remember that they don’t have to be actually bulleted. You can use other styles of icons, numbers, or preferably, nothing at all.
Getting Ahead of Yourself
This applies to both bullet points and slides. Presenters often get into the “flow” of talking about something and forget to advance the slides. The result is that they finish and then click to reveal a bullet point or slide explaining the point they have just been talking about. I have to admit that I am often guilty of this one. The remedy for this is usually more rehearsal, but it may also be worth thinking about whether you needed the bullet points or slide that you skipped in the first place.
Letting the Audience Get Ahead of You
When I did my initial teacher training, I was taught that you should never put things in front of students if you don’t want them to read them. The same rule applies to presentations. If you are going to explain ten points, do not start by listing them all on the slide for everyone to see. The audience will be able to read much more quickly than you can speak, so they will just be finishing up on point number ten as they hear you say, “So, moving on to number two….” The effect on their attention / motivation will be obvious.
I have mentioned this point already, but I’m going to come back to it because it is so annoying and because so many people keep doing it. Not only should you not be reading from your slides, you should not even be looking at them. When you stare at the slide as you talk, you lose your engagement with the audience, and the impact of what you say is greatly reduced. I have seen presentations where both the presenter and the audience spent the whole time staring at the screen as if they were worshipping a deity. You are the focus of your presentation, not your slides. If that makes you feel uncomfortable, stop giving presentations and focus on writing research papers instead. The slides are for your audience. You should be looking at the people you are talking to.
Spelling and Grammar
If you are an engineer or a doctor, it is quite possible that your audience might not really care about your spelling and grammar. If you are an English teacher, however, your audience is likely to be littered with authors, editors, proof-readers, and publishers, and I can promise you that these people will pick up on Every. Tiny. Point. Everyone makes mistakes, but I have seen presentations where it was obvious that the slides had not been subjected to even the most basic level of proofreading. Spelling and grammar mistakes and inconsistencies show either (a) that you have not checked your slides properly; (b) that you do not care about spelling and grammar; or (c) that do not know enough about it to spot the mistakes. None of these is a good look for an English teacher.
Graphs and Charts
Graphs and charts are fine (actually, graphs, charts, and illustrations are what Powerpoint was developed for in the first place), but avoid over-labelling them or making them too elaborate. Also avoid making assumptions about the audience’s knowledge of specialist terms and concepts unless you have made it clear in your abstract that you are going to be using them. Personally, I prefer to leave out labels on graphs and charts. I want my audience to look at the chart, see an obvious visual pattern, and then turn to me for an explanation.
Slides that the audience need to read should be used sparingly, but if you have to use them, make sure that the text is big enough and that you are using an appropriate, easy-to-read font. And of course, avoid the temptation to read them out. Just say, “Please read that” and allow your audience the time they need to read in silence.
Many presenters like to use colour to make their slides more attractive, but bear in mind that the colours shown by a projector will rarely match the ones on your computer. Avoid light text on light backgrounds, and wherever possible, check beforehand how your slides look when projected on a screen.
Your presentation should have a design theme that specifies fonts, styles, colours, and slide design. Do not mix different themes in a single presentation. Choose a nice simple one, and stick with it right the way through.
Audio and Video Files
Audio and video files can be embedded in slides in both the Powerpoint and Keynote programs. If you do not know how to do this, google “embed video in powerpoint slide” or take a look at this. Do not under any circumstances leave the presentation program in order to go hunting around in your folders trying to find files.
Losing your place
I have often seen presenters get flustered when a slide appears to take them by surprise or when they suddenly think of something they want to show the audience. When this happens, people have a tendency to scroll backwards and forwards through their presentation like maniacs. Not only is this likely to leave the audience feeling slightly dizzy, saying things like “Now where was that photo” suggests a less than exemplary approach to your preparations.
Remote controls are not an “optional extra” for presenters; they are essential. If you do not have one, make the investment, or find someone who is willing to lend you theirs. Wandering backwards and forwards to your computer to click a key (or worse, a mouse) does not look very professional. If you use a remote control, though, be careful that you do not inadvertently advance your slides when you are holding it in your hand. (Another one that I have been guilty of on more than one occasion!)
I have often felt slightly uncomfortable in presentations where it was clear that a number of the presenter’s friends or colleagues were in the audience. Of course, there is no problem with having people you know come to your presentations, but try to avoid references to “in-jokes” or stories about your exploits with those people in a bar the night before. Basically, avoid saying anything that might cause other members of your audience to feel like the “out” crowd.
And Talking of The Night Before…
Unfortunately, many presenters seem to believe that if they have a basic idea of what they are going to present about, they will be able to “tidy it up” the night before the presentation. This is a guaranteed recipe for disaster. Make sure that your presentation is ready to go (and thoroughly rehearsed) from the moment you arrive at the conference. If you do end up making any last minute changes that lead to mistakes, do not say to your audience, “Sorry, but I was editing this at 1 o’clock this morning after I went out drinking with some friends”!
Handouts need to be checked carefully for spelling and grammar mistakes. Remember to leave a pile of them near the entrance so that late-comers can pick one up as they come in. (Thanks to the teacher who suggested this on Saturday.) Unless teachers need to use the handout during the presentation itself, it may be better to offer to send it electronically or make it available online for anyone who wants it. (In case you haven’t noticed, this blog is, in effect, the handout for my presentation.)
If you have rehearsed your presentation properly, you should have a good idea of how long it takes. It always amazes me when presenters notice that they are running out of time, say they are going to skip a bit, and then flick through dozens of slides in order to get to the end. How on earth did they think they were going to have time to get through all those?! There is no problem with adjusting the timing of your presentation slightly depending on your audience, but if you find yourself doing it too often or skipping too many slides, you may need to look more carefully at your preparation.
Send Me Your Slides
Some presenters create handouts for their presentations that are just printouts of the slides they are using. I can see some logic in this. If you give this to your audience, they will be able to make notes on each slide as they listen. Of course, they will also be able to look ahead and see “how the story ends” (see “Letting the Audience Get Ahead of You” above). Ideally, your slides should be largely meaningless without the accompanying commentary. If someone can understand your presentation simply by looking at your slides, they might wonder why they bothered attending in the first place. If someone was at your presentation, having the slides may help them to recall what you said at different points, but getting hold of copies of your slides should never be a substitute for attendance. If you want to provide that service, create a different set of slides or notes for people who were not there.
Opinions may differ on this, but my position is that you should not need notes to give your presentation. If you don’t know it well enough to do it from memory, you haven’t rehearsed sufficiently (or, more likely, at all). I suppose a case could be made for using cards showing key words or points, but they should be on the table, not in the presenter’s hands. I do know one famous presenter who always carries a piece of paper when he walks on stage, but I have never seen him actually look at it.
At the beginning of this entry, I said that I wanted to focus on what presenters should not do rather than stipulating what they should do. If you are interested in reading more about this topic from a “how to” point of view, I highly recommend Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen website. His book of the same name is also compulsory reading for all presenters.
If pushed to give a list of “dos” for presenters myself, I would suggest the three Ps:
Alternatively, I might recommend the three Rs:
I have also come up with three basic principles for presenters to follow:
Images, not text
You, not the slides
Speaking, not reading
If you follow these guidelines, you will not go far wrong.
PS Did I mention that you should never read from your slides?