Surviving in a PowerPoint Classroom

Most of the posts here on Brainslides are directed towards teachers who want to improve their slide design and presentation skills, but today I've decided to focus on the other half of the equation. Here are a few tips for those of us who aren't yet desperate enough to throw tomatoes at the projector screen but still want to make the most of our time in the lecture hall.

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TED Talk: Julian Treasure shows 5 ways to present better

This recent TED Talk by Julian Treasure on 5 ways to listen better is a fabulous example of an effective presentation. Watch it, then let's talk about what you can do to improve your presentations.

5 ways to present better:

1. Keep it short

This talk is only 7 minutes long. As Julian explains, with our busy world, our attention spans are shrinking. We pay attention to fewer things for shorter periods of time. Keeping a presentation short helps ensure that the audience doesn't reach the point of being antsy and bored. But what if you're teaching an hour long class or have to give a presentation that is longer than 10 minutes? Break it down into smaller segments. As Dr. John Medina explains in Brain Rules, students tend to tune out at around the 10 minute mark, so structure your lesson to take advantage of that. Divide the lesson or presentation into 10 minute chunks, create your slides around those segments, and build in a break or related activity in between each of them. This helps regain the attention of the students. Even a simple joke can work – as long as it is directly related to the topic. Breaking down the lesson into smaller chunks also makes it easier to prepare.

2. Jump right in

When you watch the video, notice how there is no self-introduction, incidental anecdote about his plane ride, an lengthy list of thank you's, or a string of "umms" and throat clearing noises. He simply starts by stating the thesis of his talk, "We are losing our listening," which he promptly backs up with a clear set of data. This is the art of the cold start, which I have mentioned before. All of that warming up tends to bore the audience to sleep, while a brisk opening wakes them up and let's them know you mean business.


3. Keep slides simple

It's a theme that I repeat over and over again. Your slides are too complex. Everyone tries to cram too much information on a screen which is not meant for detail. Slides accompany your talk, they do not deliver it. Julian's slides are dead simple. No bullet points, no title and body text. Just simple phrases in large text on a decent colored background. They accompany his talk and reinforce the message he is trying to share.

4. Use media seamlessly

This talk was about sound: How we listen and why we should pay more attention to it. Julian played sounds in the background while he presented – cocktail party chatter, pink noise, crowds, birds in a forest, etc. – to give the audience a feel for what he was describing. The reason this was effective, though, was not simply because he used audio, but because he used it almost imperceptibly. I see lots of people use media in their presentations – like music or YouTube videos – but the process isn't always as seamless. Instead, the presenter exits out of the presentation revealing a mess of files on the desktop, navigates to a YouTube video, plays it in the window rather than fullscreen, fiddles with the mouse or volume while it is playing, and then returns to the presentation. This process is full of distractions and empty seconds in which the audience can drift off. If you want the media to make an impact, insert it into your presentation and set the appropriate timing so that it plays when you want it to. It can sometimes be difficult to find the right media format to use with Microsoft PowerPoint, but experiment a bit and check Microsoft's Support site for help. (If you're using Apple's Keynote, you will rarely run into playback issues with media.)

5. Stand comfortably

We've all seen it: the presenter pacing awkwardly around the stage, more often than not in a little jazz square near the lectern, pausing periodically with one leg crossed in front of the other. I like to call it the "presenter potty pace," and it happens when we are unsure of how to stand and what to do with our arms. Standing comfortably takes practice and awareness. Julian demonstrates it perfectly at 6 minutes 40 seconds into the video when he suggests that we be "connected in space and in time to the physical world around us, connected in understanding to each other." This also explains why nervous presenters look uncomfortable in their own skin – they lose connection with the present moment. Their minds are racing thinking about themselves and what they're supposed to say, and whether the presenter remote is working. If they just calm their minds, acknowledge where they are, and focus on their audience, they can relax into their stance and present comfortably and naturally. Julian is so adept at this, that, for a moment, he even had the confidence to dance a waltz on stage!

Learn to stand comfortably while on stage.

Learn to stand comfortably while on stage.

The TED stage has a large circle of red carpet which, I assume, is meant as a boundary for the presenter. There are likely many reasons for this, such as making it easier for stage lighting and the camera crew, but it also benefits the presenter. If they are conscious of the boundary, they will not wander frantically around the stage. Having a soft limit gives you a safe area to move around in. Just like Julian does, it is ok to shift your weight, take a step or two, and move your arms deliberately. Oftentimes, I will script a stage move at a specific point in my presentation, i.e. walk across the stage while introducing the second topic, stay there, then walk back while introducing the third topic. In general, though, stand with your feet about shoulder width apart and your hands relaxed at your side or in front of you if you tend to gesture a lot.

Of course, for teachers, it may be a little different. It is important to move around the classroom and maintain a close connection with the students, especially in K-12 (although, if you're using PowerPoint in grade school, we need to have another discussion). But when you are moving among the audience, it is even more important to maintain that relaxed confidence and presence of mind.

What other presentation tips can you learn from this wonderful TED Talk?

Episode 5: Prof. Tony Christensen Redesigns His Slides

Nathan and Mike chat with Professor Tony Christensen of Wilfrid Laurier University who recently decided to scrap his lecture slides and start from scratch. (See his amazing before & after slides below.) Find out what convinced him to do it, what it took, and how you can take steps to presenting better in your own classroom.

Experiencing_Ethnography_Original.pdf Download this file

Experiencing_Ethnography_New.pdf Download this file

Also mentioned in the show:

Brainslides_Episode_5.mp3 Listen on Posterous

Presentation Picks:

Nathan - Presenting with Text

Mike –
Tony –, color them generator

Find more info about the hosts:
Tony Christensen @casualtaoist

Mike Pulsifer @mikepulsifer

Chris Anderson (TED Curator) on Effective Communication

Chris Anderson is the curator of the TED Conference, which I have referred to numerous times, and which is the source of the astoundingly popular TED Talks available online for free. In an interview with Charlie Rose, he discusses a bit of the history behind TED as well as the 18-minute format and other things. About half way through the interview, Charlie Rose asks a very poignant question: "What have you learned about the ability to communicate?" Chris's response contains a number of important points for everyone who needs to communicate important information, especially teachers.

Tell Dramatic Stories

The TED Talks format resembles the ancient practice of telling stories around a campfire. For ages before modern civilization, families and tribes would gather around a campfire and share stories that would connect on a deep level with each other. These stories, he says, "send fireworks exploding in the brains of everyone in the audience."

Ancient civilizations told dramatic stories around the campfire

Ancient Storytelling – Photo Credit: Flickr User ihave3kids

How different from the gazed looks often found on the faces of high school and college students! Could telling stories be an answer to improving the attention of students in the classroom? In his book, Brain Rules, John Medina explains that stories elicit emotions which have a large impact on retention. What is so impressive about TED, is that these 18 minute talks are viewed hundreds of thousands of times a day by people all over the world. Now that is a captive audience! Stories can be used in the classroom to grab attention, illustrate a point, or encourage reflective thinking.

Be Transparent

Chris says that those who want to puff themselves up tend to "switch off the audience." But people who allow themselves to feel vulnerable, who are honest and transparent about who they are, look audience members in the eye, and share their passion are able to connect with their audience. This level of connection, he suggests, actually involves neurons firing in the audience member which mirror the neurons in the speaker.

Teachers expend enormous amounts of effort trying to help their students give a damn and see things from their point of view. Unfortunately, this often manifests itself in the form of hour long lectures about a topic that students struggle to relate to. Relinquishing the desire to appear intelligent and academic allows you to become accessible to those you are trying to teach.


"A lot of people are brilliant but get lost in jargon." Empathy is a necessary characteristic for a presenter to have if he or she wants to connect to and communicate with an audience. Most effective presenters have developed the skill of simplifying their material so that it is clear enough for everyone to understand it without dumbing it down too much. Similarly, teachers must have the presence of mind to know when they are using vocabulary that is above the comprehension level of those they are teaching, and the ability to rephrase the information using words appropriate to the experience and knowledge of their students.

You can view the entire interview here:

Amazing Lecture – Richard Dawkins

The first installment in my Amazing Lecture Series comes from a well-known and controversial individual. From the YouTube description:

Oxford professor Richard Dawkins presents a series of lectures on life, the universe, and our place in it. With brilliance and clarity, Dawkins unravels an educational gem that will mesmerize young and old alike. Illuminating demonstrations, wildlife, virtual reality, and special guests (including Douglas Adams) all combine to make this collection a timeless classic. The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures for Children were founded by Michael Faraday in 1825, with himself as the inaugural lecturer. The 1991 lecturer was Richard Dawkins whose five one-hour lectures, originally televised by the BBC, are now available free online, courtesy of The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

Wherever you stand on the issue of Evolution vs. Intelligent Design, and no matter your religious beliefs (Dawkins is a militant atheist), it is difficult to deny that Richard Dawkins has prepared and delivered an amazing lecture. Dawkins elaborates upon the theory of evolution in five installments, each building upon the content of the previous lectures. While he doesn't have the most exciting personality, or energetic voice, he does use a wide variety of teaching tools to compensate. Yes, he uses slides, but very few. He also uses toy dinosaurs, live snakes & bugs, microscopes, guest speakers, paintings, videos, fossils, lasers, smoke, and more! Students are frequently asked to participate, not just by answering questions, but by coming to the front of the class and performing a task that illustrates or demonstrates an important point, such as working a scanning electron microscope.

Of course, Dr. Dawkins isn't quite perfect. The authenticity of his lecture would benefit if he relied less on his notes and spoke more naturally and spontaneously. Yet, it is obvious that the amount of preparation that went into 5 hours of classroom lecture far exceeded the average for college professors. Teachers would improve their lectures by implementing only a fraction of the teaching tools employed in this series.

You can watch the full series here: Growing up in the Universe