Teaching and presentations

August 31, 2010

Watching the video of the talk given by Garr Reynolds at Duarte Design recently, I picked up on a couple of side comments he made about teaching

  • using a whiteboard rather than slides when teaching
  • good teaching is where the teacher talks less

These are good points and I’ve reflected on similar lines here, here and here.

Teaching shouldn’t just be about talking to learners – they should be engaged. I’ve felt for a long time that a good teacher or trainer will draw his learners into a conversation rather than lecture at them and although classes should be properly planned and prepared the best teachers are flexible in their approach and don’t simply put up lists of points they’ve prepared in advance. That’s why I too, often prefer to use the old-fashioned approach of developing points on a flipchart or whiteboard as a discussion develops.

However, slides do have their uses. There are different teaching situations and what visual aids are appropriate depend on the context. Giving a lecture to a large group of students is not that much different to making a business presentation, and the use of well designed slides is usually a good approach.  With small groups in the classroom, slides still have a role but should be used carefully.


Who needs Powerpoint?

May 28, 2010

I do, but only sometimes.

It seems that everyone expects speakers/trainers/teachers to have a deck of Powerpoint slides to use when they’re talking. They’re often badly designed and used poorly, but they can be a useful way of making a talk more visual and interesting. However, they can also be a distraction and if overused their impact is reduced.

I probably overuse Powerpoint. It’s easy to do this. Preparing a talk or session on a training course can easily turn into preparing a set of slides which form the structure of the talk and end up being used a speaker prompts. The problem with this is that your talk starts to follow a rigid framework imposed by the default Powerpoint template. I think that Nancy Duarte and Garr Reynolds have it right when the recommend “going analogue” when preparing a talk – i.e. using paper to plan it out. This can free your thought process and allow you to think about how to present your ideas without getting stuck in a Powerpoint induced rut..

From an audience point of view, watching contiuuous streams of slides projected on a screen can become tedious. Its much more interesting if there is some variety in the way material is put across. You’re more likely to keep their attention.

I’ve been running a course this week. It was a revision course for occupational hygienists preparing to take an examination. A lot of topics were covered during the week. For the first three days I’d used some slides for some, but not all of the sessions. I’d tried to avoid too many “lectures” and involved the delegates in discussions and group activities.

On the fourth day of the course we started with an open session. I’d asked the delegates to go through past some exam questions the previous evening and decide which questions they’d like to talk through in the class. This meant that I only had a broad view of we’d need to talk about. The session inevitably threw up some topics where the delgates didn’t have much knowledge and were looking to me to help them fill the gaps. I could have started opening up relevant presentations from my laptop but instead we just had a general discussion and where I needed to fill in some details I relied on description and the old fashioned “talk and chalk” approach, using a flip chart. It was really refreshing to do this from my perspective and the delegates seemed to like it too.

I didn’t switch the projector on all day . For the other sessions I used techniques such as brainstorming, breakout groups an, where I had to “lecture” I stuck with the flip chart.

Slideware such as Powerpoint is a useful tool, but it’s only one item in our toolbox. Unfortunately it’s overused. Its refreshing to use other techniques and I think we all benefited from a “Powerpoint free” day.

This is a relatively long video of a talk given by Garr Reynolds to a conference of software designers.

He sets out his ideas from Presentaton Zen and relates them to software design

Its interesting to see him in action and how he applies his own principles (I’m sure there’s scope to analyse his talk in this context)

Slide Design

March 27, 2009


I’ve recently been involved in running a pilot of a course intended for an international audience. It’s the fourth in a series of course that are being developed. A couple of major companies have been funding the development of materials that can be used free of charge by anyone running the course as a way of encouraging the takeup of these courses. For the course I was running, someone else had been commissioned to prepare the material – a manual, exercises and PowerPoint slides to use during classes.

When I was forwarded the material and saw the slides I was far from happy. They were excellent examples of the old approach to slides. Full of words and very few pictures. What pictures there were were generally poor quality. They weren’t just full of bullet points – but contained whole paragraphs copied straight from the manual.

I have put a lot of effort over the last year in working to improve my use of slides in my presentations. I’ve considered where and when to use slides and also their design. There are a number of good books on this, Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson, Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds and Slideology by Nacy Durate have been particularly useful. There are a lot of blogs, too, devooted to presentations and slide design. So there is plenty of advice and experience out there to draw on. The general consensus is that the traditional approach to using PowerPoint is ineffective at best and even detrimental to learning.

The approach I’ve adopted is to use slides judiciously – as one method of conveying information. I use other methods of getting information across  – demonstrations, excercises, flip chart/whiteboard – to introduce variety but also because sometimes other techniques are more effective. Where I use slideware I’m trying to avoid slides with loads of bullet points, limitthe amount of information per slide (using more slides where necessary) and using pictures and graphics as much as possible to make the learning more visual. I know I haven’t got everything with regard to slide design just right. I like the Presentation Zen / Slideology approach but think that it needs some adaption for small group teaching. So I’m still working on it.

So I was horrified when I saw the material I was given to work with. Consequently I put quite a bit of effort into modifyig the slides more allong the lines I’ve adopted. Time constraints meant I wasn’t able to change everything completely, but I was much happier when I used them on the course itself. I didn’t have any negative comments about the slides from the course delegates and everything seemed to go well.

After the course the modified material was made available to the sponsors. One of them, however, was not happy with the changes. His view was

    • the slides were very different to those from the other courses previously made available and he felt they should all have the same style
    • the English language ability of many of the delegates on courses would not be strong and they oflten couldn’t understand the presenter, so the slides needed to convey the information.
    • The wordy slides were needed as the delegates who were not very proficient at English could copy down the information as they could understand written English better.
    • The wordy slides acted as a summary version of the course material

      If English langiuage skills are a problem copying lengthy passages from slides is not the solution. The delegates don’t gain much benefit from doing this and there is little value in having them sitting in the class – they could pick up the same points by reading the course manual. The value of gathering people together for a course is the interaction with the tutor and other delegates. The slides are there to support learning and should not form the main mode of communication between the tutor and the learners.

      The principles of good slide design apply whatever the circumstances. if there  is a perceived problem with language, using wordy slides isn’t the solution. It begs other questions. Is there any real benefit asking learners with poor English language skills to attend a course where they are going to struggle to undertand what is being said? If it isn’t possible to run the course in their own language, what is the best way of training them so they can learn something useful? Is there anyone out there with experiences they could share on this?

      Non-verbal Communication

      February 24, 2009


      I recently finished reading Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book “Travels with Herodotus”. I particularly liked the following passage:

      Negusi knew only two expressions n English: “problem” and “no problem”. But using this gibberish we communicated ably in the most fraught circumstances. In conjunction with the wordless signals particular to each human being and which can speak volumes f only we would observe him carefully – drink it in, as it were – two words sufficed for us to feel no chasm between us and made traveling together possible”

      To me this sums up the role of non-verbal communication. Its possible to understand each other with using words.

      This is missing when communication only takes place in writing – as when we use e-mail, carry out electronic conferencing, when conducting “e-learning” and in other situations where we rely on written and verbal communication only. Without face to face contact it is so easy for things to be misunderstood and misinterpreted because the signals given through gestures, body language etc are missing.

      Another problem with e-communication is the asynchronous nature of the conversation. Its like playing correspondence chess – there can be long gaps between each “move” and take a long time to complete something which would be over relatively quickly face to face. It is also very easy for the conversation to move off at tangents, which can be difficult to bring back to the original direction.