Why I think that lectures that don’t get applause at the end have failed (and how I think you can fix that).

When we design courses for our students, at some point we decide that the best thing to do is to put all our students in a large room and talk to them for 90 minutes. Usually, we do this because it’s cheap, which is not a good reason. Often, we do this to convey information, which is also not a good reason.

sleeping students

Mind you, I’m not against lectures are such, but I do want lectures to be taught for the right reasons.  I think that lectures may be cheap but they should also be valuable.  I think that lectures may be informative but they should be about insight. Students are experts at recognising if a lecture offers value and insights or not and they will react accordingly. A lecture without applause at the end has failed.

If we simply use lectures to convey information we find ourselves competing with books, journals and the entire Internet. That is a battle we are going to lose. Books, journals and the Internet can be accessed day and night, chapters of books can be re-read or skipped willy-nilly, websites can even be translated into anyone’s native language at a mouse click. Lectures can’t do any of that and personally I have no intention of being available in the middle of the night to answer my students’ questions.

But there are things that we can do in our lectures that books and journals and the Internet are less good at.  For instance, we are really good at interpreting information, pointing out highlights, showing strengths and weaknesses of academic practices, influencing students’ attitudes towards particular phenomena. We can offer our specialist view on things, make connections to different fields of study. We can interact with students, asking for their opinions, insights and questions, we can check if they understand what we are talking about. And if they don’t, we can react immediately by offering explanations, rephrasing things, giving examples etc, until they do.

And we can entertain! Yes, I know, books and journals and particularly the Internet can also entertain but that’s not what I mean. I do not think that we should try to be funny all the time, I think that there is no way that all the students in the lecture hall are going to be focused for the entire ninety minutes. We are really good at occasionally pointing out the absurd outcomes of our competitor’s research, the unexpected behaviour of our research subjects or the number of mosquito bites that we suffered during fieldwork. We can use these mental breaks to regain the students’ attention so that they are ready to absorb the next tricky bit of information, and to give them something to remember our lectures by. Which means that the entertainment should always be somehow connected to the content and the purpose of our lectures.


Students in our lecture halls are an audience and they should be treated as such. If they get the feeling that you’re just repeating what’s already in the book that you have made them buy, they will feel that the lecture is a waste of time. And they will be right. If they feel, however, that you have something to add to the book, the journals and the Internet, like  your interpretation, your expert opinions, your insights, if you show your willingness to interact with them and to entertain them, if they notice that you have worked your fingers to the bone to make this lecture valuable especially for them, I guarantee that you will have applause at the end.


How a Skinhead’s excellent presentation fails at the very last moment.

One of the most successful ways to end a presentation is to bring back an image, concept, person or something else that you used in the introduction. Part of the success of this trick lies in the fact that the audience don’t know that you are going to so this, so they are usually pleasantly surprised when you do and will start to applaud.

A few years ago, one of my first-year Mechanical Engineering students almost got this right, with the result that at the end of the talk there was no applause, but awkward silence.

The others in the group had warned me about her, saying that she was nuts. She may not look nuts or talk as if she was nuts and she may not act nuts, but she was completely and utterly nuts, they said. And it was true: she did not look, or act nuts at all. She was a skinhead, and in her presentation she explained the rules and customs of the skinhead community. It was actually kind of interesting, if slightly awkward. It certainly had news value, as none of the students in the audience had ever dared to ask a skinhead what their mores entailed.

The introduction was fine. She started by explaining how yoarmy bootsu could identify the status of a skinhead just by looking at their shoelaces. The black shoelaces she was wearing were a sign that she was a new member with low status. Status was acquired by the amount of violence one was willing to use. ‘The most prestigious shoelaces are red, she said, ‘you are only allowed to wear red shoelaces if you have killed someone with your bare hands.’

The body of the presentation was well organised and she used clear illustrations, good speed, melody, posture – she did everything right. She was in “uniform”, so she was able to use herself as a visual aid, pointing at specific parts of her attire, which was rather funny and even mildly endearing: she was a girl showing off her clothes.

And then she came to her conclusion, which went quite well, she summarised the main points she had tried to make, and then, in the very last sentence she demonstrated that she was a good presenter and completely crazy at the same time:

‘And one day,’ she said with a glow of anticipation, ‘I hope I will be wearing red shoelaces. Thank you for your attention’.

Last slide: Aristotle and cute kittens

At the end of your presentation,  when you say “Are there any questions?”, you would expect that people might pick up that it’s time for questions. Most likely they don’t really need a visual aid to help them. Nevertheless, many beginning speakers seem to think that their audience need some sort of support, a visible confirmation of the fact that the speaker did indeed just say that the Q&A session is now open. I find this insulting.

Over the years I have been witness to many brave attempts at finishing presentations successfully. Some of them worked, some not so much. Let me give you an idea of what I have come across.kitten

Some students use some sort of cartoon figure, or a cat or dog that looks particularly
puzzled. For extra effect it may have a question mark hanging over its head. Some use just the word “questions”. Occasionally I catch an animated version of these. Please don’t animate your last slide. It makes people nervous. They want to ask a question, but the slide is distracting them.

Some (many) shosummaryw a summary of the steps they took during the presentation, basically giving an overview, but no content. Invariably, the last words these students utter are: “And then finally we had a conclusion. Are there any questions?” Thank you, no.

Some just keep whatever happens to be the last slide of the presentation. Could be anything. Sometimes it’s a list of things that went wrong during the project. Aargh!

Some students leave the last slide blank, thus giving their audience nothing to work with.

Let’s consider the purpose of your last slide. A wise man, probably Aristotle buany-questionst there are bound to have been others, once said that the only reason why we organize presentations in the first place is to prepare the audience for the Q&A session. In other words, people are usually quite keen to ask questions. They only need a little nudge and off they go. But they do need you to give them something to go on.

As a speaker, you are also keen for them to ask questions, or you should be. An audience that is asking questions is proof of the fact that they found your presentation interesting. Of course you may prefer some questions to others, and of course you prefer the audience to ask questions that you actually know the answer to.

This is where that last slide comes in. What you do is you make sure that the information on the last slide will invite your audience to ask questions that you feel you can answer.  Usually it’s your conclusions, maybe with a couple of supporting bullet points. Of course there is no guarantee, some people will have made notes, but there’s a good chance that this way the first couple of questions will deal with your last slide.

And then, when you’ve answered your last question, you click the remote to show your contact details on the screen and say: “Thank you very much for all your questions. I realise that there may be one or two questions that we haven’t addressed yet, or maybe you suddenly wake up tomorrow morning at 3 AM because you had a dream about a really good question that you forgot to ask today. Either way, please don’t call me but send an email to this address”.

Whatever you do, please avoid the word “questions” on your last slide, and certainly don’t show a kitten with a question mark over its head. I don’t care how cute it is!

Do not underestimate the power of the dark slide.

Yes, there is one. A dark side of PowerPoint I mean. It can be a tad dominant (like Vader). In fact, some presentations look as if the speaker has thought only about what they could show in PowerPoint, instead of what they wanted to say.

All the books I know that deal with preparing presentations say that you should first identify your audience and goals, and then generate content and structure. Creating visuals comes after that and should be one of the last things you do. And yet I see a shocking number of students who, when asked to prepare a presentation, immediately start PowerPoint, Keynote or even Prezi. This is beginning to annoy me, so I asked myself: what would happen if I told my students that the projector was broken, and they would have to improvise?

I tried this a while ago: they improvised.

For this particular lesson I had asked my students to prepare a presentation in groups of two, using slides, just like they always did. This time when  they came in, however, I told them that there was a problem with the projector and that they would have to come up with a creative solution. I gave the group 15 minutes to prepare. The results were not only educational, they were spectacular.

One student used her partner as a prop. She explained the aerodynamics of speed skating and made him assume different speed skating positions to show what she meant. She was thrilled to have a movable 3D model on a 1:1 scale to help her make things clear. Between the lines it became audibly clear, by the way, that maintaining a certain knee angle for a long time is not necessarily very comfortable.

Another student made three people from the audience perform as passenger aircraft , flying from Amsterdam to New York in formation (arms wide, propeller sounds, pilot banter), slowly moving through the room together. They managed to land safely one by one.

Some groups found out that the slides that they had made were pointless and that the presentation worked just as well, or better, without them. They certainly noticed that the audience were listening quite intently to what they were saying.

The thing is, not only did we prove that life without slides actually exists, but also everybody in that group still remembers exactly all the presentations we had that day. Of course my spectacularly innovative didactics may have played a role, but I like to think that most of the presentations simply had more impact than they would have had if they had used slides.

Of course PowerPoint is not a useless tool; it can show in a flash what would otherwise take you hours to explain. But it is just that: a tool. One of many. The presentation is not what you show, the presentation is you, and there are several moments in any presentation when you as the presenter may want the audience’s full attention, without being distracted by PowerPoint. Then you might use that most wonderful of features in PowerPoint: letter B on your keyboard.

Hitting letter  B will make the screen go black, which will make everybody focus on you (I call it B for Bob). Anything you say now will be consumed like hamburgers by a starving man. Trust me and try this; and I promise that the power of the dark slide will be with you. Always.

Oh, and you should have seen the look on my students’ faces when, after our class had finished, the next group came in and started the projector, which was working perfectly well…

How Eeyore can help you become a better speaker

Most useful bits of wisdom come from Winnie the Pooh and so they do too. Many of my students, when they are trying to sound convincing in a presentation, sound like they have just had some seriously bad news. As this rather harms their persuasiveness, I feel something must be done. So here is a simple and enjoyable remedy against sounding like you are selling monotony and gloom:

Read Winnie the Pooh.

Out loud I mean. And do the voices. Not only is this excellent voice practice, it is also hilarious. Especially when you have an audience. You can read to your children, your neighbours’ children, your spouse (excellent foreplay, trust me) or your fellow presenter(s). Think about what kind of voice every animal should have (it is ok to disagree about this. Ask the children if you don’t know). When my kids were young, my Roo would sound baby-like, rabbit sounded sensible, Owl superior to posh. Tigger, of course, is and sounds bouncy. My Tigger was famous in my kids’ schoolyard.

eeyoreMy personal favourite is Eeyore, although I realize that his is exactly the kind of voice I don’t want you to use in your presentations, because he sounds thoroughly depressed. Think about the scene when he comes floating downstream on his back in the river, and he spots his friends on a bridge. “Don’t mind me”, he says, “No-one ever does”. I mean, think of the utter fatalism you must put in your voice to make that work!

Go ahead and give the voices a try. Do this about 15 minutes before your presentation starts. I promise the results will be amazing. And don’t think you’re too cool or important to do this; no one is.

Oh, and one more thing: promise me you won’t make Pooh bear sound stupid. He isn’t. It is an understandable mistake to make, as he is indeed, by his own admission, a bear of little brain, but Pooh is also very wise and a true Zen master, who comes up with little gems like this one aimed at technologists like you:

“It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like “What about lunch?”

Communicate Technology

Helping students to write and present technical reports.


This blog was initially created to help my students at Delft University of Technology write and present better technical reports. It turns out that a lot of people who are not my students are reading my posts too. Cool! I hope you find what you need and that you enjoy reading my blog.

What do you mean with “better technical reports”, you may ask. Better means: more geared to your readers’ needs and wishes.  So, all we need to do is find out who your readers and listeners are, find out what they need and wish and then find ways to deliver.

Easy? Hardly. The tricky thing about professional reports is that they are all read by several different people who all have different expectations from the same report. The fact that the reports that we write deal with technology adds an extra layer of challenges to this.

Presentations also, are usually attended by mixed audiences. Some people will be experts in your field, some will not. Some people will expect pictures, some people will expect numbers. And it’s you job to decide on a good mix.

In this blog  I will post anecdotes, examples, exercises and ideas dealing with writing and presenting  about technology. Please feel free to leave comments and questions.

Punch those keys!