I spend quite a lot of my time these days teaching and training small groups in a classroom setting. Inevitably this involves making presentations using the default tool – Powerpoint.

In one of the first posts on this blog I reflected on the problems inherent in using  “slideware”, like Powerpoint, in the classroom. The key points were:

  • learning should be active – slideware is passive
  • it isn’t good at distributing large amounts of information
  • it inhibits spontaneous feedback
  • it is not good in conveying information using non-linear paths
  • it is not good at recording input from the audience

There are some other problems too. When preparing slides the standard template drives you into producing lists of bullets. This is what Edward Tufte calls the “cognitive style” of Powerpoint. Preparing a presentation using Powerpoint drives you into producing an outline of your talk. The outcome is really a set of speaker notes which is too detailed for the audience.

Faced with slides full of bullets, I find that most people tend to try and reproduce all the points. Their attention  is divided and as they have to concentrate on copying from the slides, so they can’t listen properly to what you’re saying.

Well, they’re the problems I’ve identified, and I’m sure there are others too. What can we do to get over them?

The first thing is to ask yourself whether making a presentation with a stack of slides is the best approach for the class. Active learning, where the learners are engaged, is much more effective than passive techniques where the instructor stands at the front and talks at the class. Consider the alternatives – hands on practicals, exercises, demonstrations, brainstorming, role plays, group work etc. Depending on circumstances it might be viable to incorporate one or more of these into a class. Introducing variation in the teaching methods is always a good idea. To me the best classes are more like a discussion than a lecture.

The second thing to ask is whether having pre-prepared slides is the best visual aid to use. Sometimes its better to revert to the old “chalk and talk” approach using a whiteboard, flip chart or some other active medium. This allows you to be more flexible and draw in and record contributions from the group.


Sometimes there are other options – using models or pieces of equipment you can use for demonstrations, or even pass around.

Where you decide that you need or want to use slideware, there are a number of things you should think about

try and minimise the use of slides. Ask yourself is there another way of getting this across? Use slides only for those points where its really necessary

Remember that slides are free! Break them up. Ideally each slide should focus on one point (although you may want to include some summary slides that pull together the key points, but even then don’t cram too much on one slide – have your summary list on two or more slides if necessary)

Use diagrams and pictures where possible. I’ve attended many presentations where the presenter has slides full of words when a diagram would have been better.  For example, which of the following slides on the structure of the eye would you prefer?



Have more slides than you need to cover the main options. This will allow you to be flexible – calling up whichever slide is most appropriate depending on how the discussion progresses. Using Powerpoint’s “presenter view” allows you to do this. Alternatively it may be able to include a menu with hyperlinks into the slide design.


Picture of the eye from http://www.exceloptics.in/newsletter.php


On being emotional

October 28, 2010

A few weeks ago I signed up to the series of  “Outstanding Presentation Workshops” webinars organised by Ellen Finkelstein. So far I’ve watched all of them, either by logging on line or by downloading the video of the broadcasts that Ellen makes available the day after the webinar. They’ve all been very good, with some excellent presenters from the presentation training world in the USA (with one, Olivia Mitchell, from New Zealand).

In her talk, Nancy Duarte stressed that “all business is about presentation” and I think she has hit the nail on the head. Most people in managerial or white collar jobs, the self employed and even many “shop floor” workers have to get their point across to people whether they’re at a large gathering, small meeting or even one to one, and they need good presentation skills  to do this effectively.

Although there are a couple more webinars left in the series, I’ve noted some common themes that have come across from several of the sessions

  • good preparation is essential
  • make sure you have a clear objective
  • focus on the needs of the audience
  • use stories to engage the audience
  • slides are a backdrop to enhance the presentation – they’re not the “main event”
  • any slides or visual aids used should be well designed

I’d agree wholeheartedly with all of these.

In his talk, Jim Endicott made that point that presentations are about persuasion – getting people to think, believe and act differently – and that emotion is a powerful tool for achieving this. However, there is a danger that, unless it is used with caution, the presenter can cross the line into demagogy and manipulation. We see this all too often with some politicians – after all, what’s a political speech is not a presentation?

I’d accept that in the business world presentations are often about persuasion , but I think that there is also another reason Jim didn’t mention. Sometimes they’re about informing and educating, which is what we try to do when we we’re teaching and training.

Admittedly, sometimes persuasion is needed in the classroom – for example when a teacher is trying to get antagonistic students to understand the importance of the subject they’re being taught, or when employees are reluctant to listen to the message being put across in a training session. But where the audience is receptive and keen to learn the presentation isn’t about persuasion .

Good preparation, being careful with the use of visual aids are relevant to all types of presentations. Using stories or case studies to illustrate  the points being made and bring them to life is a good technique when informing and educating. However, although it might be needed when we want to captivate and enthuse our audience, using “emotion” isn’t necessary or relevant where  our objective is to get them to learn or understand. Then, we need to appeal to their intellect.

Oscar Wilde on Exams

October 25, 2010

In examinations the foolish ask questions that the wise cannot answer

There’s a lot happening in the presentation world at the moment. I’ve signed up to a series of free webinars – “Outstanding Presentation Workshops” organised by Ellen Finkelstein and have already logged into the first three.

The second of these featured was Nancy Duarte of Duarte Design, the author of “Slide:ology” whose new book Resonate has just been published in the States (it’s now available yet in the UK but will be released in the near future). In this new book Nancy covers how to prepare, create and deliver presentations  According to her website it

“reveals how to transform any presentation into an engaging journey. You will discover how to understand your audience, create persuasive content, and elicit a groundswell response.”

During her “Outstanding Presentations Workshop” webinar, Nancy mentioned that she was giving a free webinar when the book is launched. Places were limited and were soon taken, so a second one was set up that I was able to register for.

During her talk Nancy set out the key themes of her book. Her presentation was excellent with extremely good visuals. That’s what I’d expect from Duarte Design. To me, there were no major new revelations. However, she pulled together key messages about how to create and deliver a presentation that will engage an audience, and her own presentation achieved this.

Presentations can be an effective means of communication and, in practice, “all business is about presentation”. The problem is that the majority of presentations are bad.

Nancy’s key point is that the best way to engage the audience is to turn the presentation into a story rather than lecture at them.  Her contention was that “we are all natural storytellers” and the right story can “create a human connection”.

Most presentations are like a report bombarding the audience with too many facts. The alternative approach is to use storytelling techniques which are dramatic and emotional and which make a connection with the audience. To achieve the latter presenters should make an effort to find out as much as they can about their audience before preparing their talk and attempt to increase “the area of shared experience”.

Rather than overwhelming the audience with information, every presentation should have one big idea – a “unique point of view” – and the presentation should be designed to move the audience to this.

Lessons can be learned from the techniques used by professional story tellers, particularly from the theatre. Presentations should be structured like a drama.

(diagram from http://blog.duarte.com/2010/08/why-resonate/)

Developing this idea Nancy introduced a “presentation form” made up of a series of dramatic climaxes

pres form

Presenters should attempt to captivate their audience ensure that they identify a STAR moment that they will remember





So how did Nancy’s presentation hold up? Well she certainly applied the principles she’d set out to her webinar.

  • It wouldn’t be easy to research the audience for a webinar attended by a large number of people from all around the world, but she would have known that the majority of people participating would be interested in presentations and would probably be aware of her work. So she’d be able to prepare with an audience profile in mind.
  • She used a story telling approach, peppering her talk with lots of examples and anecdotes
  • She used the dramatic structure she advocated
  • I’m not sure that there was a single STAR moment. Although there were several key points, none of them stood out as more important or captivating than the others.

After a busy day on Wednesday I logged on to the third “Outstanding Presentation Workshops” webinar organised by Ellen Finkelstein. The presenter was Olivia Mitchell from New Zealand who runs the excellent blog on presentations “Speaking about presenting”.

Olivia concentrated on planning presentations and introduced a planning tool that can help speakers to structure their talk. She stressed the importance of planning as a way of avoiding the common problems with presentations which make them “audience unfriendly”.

The main types of  “audience unfriendly” presentations she identified were

“I’m going to tell you everything”

These are presentations where the speaker overwhelms the audience with information by trying to get across too much detail for the time available . In my experience many conference presentations are like this. The speakers have conducted some research and want to give all the details – even though they normally have a very limited time slot. Their presentation is rushed, so the audience hasn’t had time to absorb one point they move on to the next one. They also usually have too much material for the time available and end up missing out material towards the end of their talk and skimming over their conclusions (having spent too long on less important details at the beginning).

The “grab bag”

Here, the talk is unstructured, consisting of points pulled at random from the speaker’s “bag of goodies” – stories, anecdotes etc . The audience may be entertained, but can be left unfulfilled. The talk by Ben Goldacre at BOHS Conference this year was rather like this. He is an excellent speaker and had a lot of interesting stories and examples, but his talk was unstructured. It was clear that he hadn’t properly researched his audience or planned his talk  to make it relevant to us. He seemed to pull out stock stories in a random manner  as he went along, and he clearly hadn’t decided beforehand which he was going to use. Consequently, although his talk was entertaining, and some good points came across, it wasn’t coherent.

The shopping list

This is the classic “death by Powerpoint” presentation consisting of slide after slide of bullets. In this case the presenter probably prepared his talk and filled in the standard Powerpoint template of headings, bullets and sub-bullets. Effectively the talk is an outline which could (perhaps, should is a better word to use) have been further developed.

All of these problems can be avoided by devoting time to planning the presentation.

Olivia advocated the use of a planning tool, to structure the talk and avoid these problems, and more detail on this can be obtained via her blog. I think the tool would work well for many people. It would be particularly useful for those new to presentations but would still be of benefit to many experienced speakers who are unsure how to plan their talks.