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?”

Spoiler Alert!

Why bottom lines should be headlines.

What would your readers say if you put the conclusion of your report in its title?

A: Booh! Spoiler alert!

B: Aha!

I have asked that question in my writing groups for years and every time a few of my students answer ‘A’. Apparently they think that argumentation should come before conclusion. And of course it does – when you are doing the research and the designing. But does that mean that you should keep your conclusions secret until your reader has read the rest of the report? I think not!

Mind you: I am not talking about scientific papers or essays here. But your report should give the most efficient representation of your conclusions and argumentation possible, and that means that your reader should be able to see what your main conclusion is. Immediately. On the front page.

A title like: “An investigation into algae as an energy source” forces your poor readers to find the Summary or the Conclusion section and read until they come to the relevant bit, which they will find annoying. You don’t want your readers to find you annoying. Really. It’s bad for business.

Instead, write something like: “Three reasons why algae will never replace fossile fuel”, or: “Why algae are likely to be the biofuel of the future”. If you want (you do), you can combine them into a title and a subtitle (or primary and secondary, if you are American) like this:

Three reasons why algae will replace fossile fuel within five years.

An investigation into algae as an energy source.

Or:

Algare are not an acceptable alternative for fossile fuel.

Research shows algae are too slow to grow, expensive and inefficient.

I have said this in previous posts, but you may not (yet) have read them all (you should). People who read technical reports professionally don’t have a lot of time to read. Do them a favour: don’t waste their time by keeping your main findings a secret.

Pronouncing English properly is impossible.

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation, DON’T READ THIS, IT WILL DRIVE YOU MAD!

My dad, now 86 years old, used to force-recite this poem/pronunciation exercise/mental torture to me relentlessly 40 or 50 years ago. It was therefore both a shock of panic and of fond recognition to find that it is still alive and kicking today. I will just give you the first couple of stanzas here, the rest can be found on many places on the internet. If you get the whole thing right (you won’t), try an Irish accent. Or Jamaican.

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.

Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, hear and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word.

Sword and sward, retain and Britain
(Mind the latter how it’s written).
Made has not the sound of bade,
Say-said, pay-paid, laid but plaid.

Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
But be careful how you speak,
Say: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak ,

Previous, precious, fuchsia, via
Recipe, pipe, studding-sail, choir;
Woven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, shoe, poem, toe.

Say, expecting fraud and trickery:
Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,
Branch, ranch, measles, topsails, aisles,
Missiles, similes, reviles.

Oh dear, that reminds me. Does anyone have the story of Arthur the rat, who’d never take the trouble to make up his mind? I remember students crying in the office next door, trying to get it right.

“Pass the parcel” writing exercise

It has been a long time since I wrote something about writing. This will not do. Here is a lovely creative writing exercise I did with my technical report-writing group last week.

  1. Make groups of four or five; tell everyone to find a pen and a sheet of paper (no laptops or books or anything like that, just a sheet of paper).
  2. Give them half a sentence to write. I gave them “This morning, when I was coming to class …”, but it could be anything you like of course.
  3. Tell them they get thee minutes to write as fast as they can, continuing from the half-sentence you gave them. Don’t let them think, make them write! “Punch those keys!” (from the movie Finding Forrester, which is about an aspiring writer, co-starring Sean Connery).
  4. When the three minutes are up, tell your students to stop – don’t let them finish their sentences – and to pass their writing product to the next person in the subgroup, so that everybody gets somebody else’s product. Give them 10 seconds to read and then ask them to continue the story, again for three minutes.
  5. Keep doing this until each student gets their own story  (i.e. the one they started) back, and give them two minutes to wrap it up. Don’t give them more than 10 seconds to read during the changeovers.

To make it more difficult – and a lot more fun – you can add small assignments like: your next sentence contains an elephant or the next paragraph contains a five-syllable word. I usually make these up on the spot, but if you are a better organized language teacher than I am, and chances are that you are, you can make them use the passive voice only, or the gerund, or the idioms they were supposed to have studied (one per sentence), whatever floats your boat. But don’t overdo this, it will kill the fun.

It is important that you put the pressure on. Don’t give them time to think, they have to write as fast as they can.

Every time I do this exercise with my students, the room buzzes with energy and the results are invariably hilarious. But have they learned anything? Well, if it’s only that they perform better under pressure than they thought, that would be enough. But also …

  • Writing can be fun.
  • Writing does not have to be difficult and you can do it anywhere. I used this game once to resuscitate a birthday party that was on the brink of death.
  • Anyone can write. And that includes technologists like my students, not only linguists.
  • You don’t have to leave the writing of your group assignments to someone else.

Paul Kuijer was the teacher at “d’Witte Leli” who  taught me this exercise back in 1982. I still have it somewhere in my archive. Thank you, Paul.