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 a lecture’s value and insights or the lack thereof 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. We 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 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 you 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.

applause

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.

 

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 do it for 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?”

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.

A cat, algae and a small snake

A few years ago I was asked to coach the contestants in a pitching contest for one of the big oil companies. The goal of the pitches was to present new, greener energy sources. For one of the participants I was able to come up with a shrewd plan involving a prop.

A prop can be anything you bring to the presentation for demonstration purposes, but don’t take this too far. I once saw a man who brought a cat to a presentation in order to demonstrate the mechanics of it landing on its feet. The cat was not happy. You can guess how it ended. It’s amazing how fast a cat can move its claws when it is properly motivated.algae

Anyway. William, my student, came on to the stage carrying a glass that was filled with something that looked like algae in water. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, he said, I would like to present to you algae, the biofuel of the future!’ and he held up the glass. The audience were properly impressed and William put the glass down and floated fluently through his presentation, describing the many benefits of his idea with great confidence.

When he got to the end though, he appeared to be making a dreadful mistake. He said: ‘I am sure that this fast-growing green fuel will be available in every service station in less than five years. I’ll drink to that!’ And he set the glass to his lips. The audience, who had been quite captivated, jumped up and shouted: ‘No, no, no! Stop, you fool! You can’t drink that!’ And William smiled and said: ‘Yeah yeah, don’t worry. It’s lemonade … Cheers!’ Needless to say that William won first prize.

Props can be really helpful if you do something with them. Don’t just stand them on a desk or they will be very distracting (unless they are a glass of lemonade). The more spectacular looking props are best kept hidden until you need them. Show them when you do – and make sure everybody can see them – and then put them away again. I remember a biologist who left a small snake lying on the desk just for decoration. To this day I still have no idea what his talk was about and I am guessing nobody else in the audience do either. Something to do with snakes, probably…

My first presentation in Delft (XXX)

 

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The first presentation I ever saw at Delft University of Technology was in the faculty of aerospace engineering. I was invited to this presentation to help me get acquainted with the kind of presentations I should expect as a teacher of communication skills. I came from a polytechnic where the majority of the students were female. Their presentations dealt with the management of tourism, the organisation of big events and travel. My colleagues thought that it would be a good idea for me to get some idea of what I was in for in Delft. They were right.

The presentation I got to see was delivered by four students presenting their Bachelor’s thesis. They had designed a modular flight simulator, which involved sliding dashboards, switching switches, disappearing dials etc. The problem that there was solving this way was that flight simulators are type-specific, which means that they can only simulate one specific type of aircraft. If you want to simulate a different aircraft, even if it is quite like the first one, you will have to build a new simulator, which costs millions of dollars. So obviously, as the invention of a modular flight simulator would solve that problem, these students had drawn some attention to themselves.

The room was filled with important people: the Dean of the faculty, the CEO of Schiphol airport, the founder of Martinair, an astronaut (different field, I know, but he was there anyway), two men in expensive suits who were in the flight simulator business, a pride of professors, a flock of fellow students and me. There were no women in the room. The students on the podium looked nervous but proud, impressed but fearless, anxious but able. And then they began.

The presentation was quite good. They ran the PowerPoint using a laptop that belonged to one of the students, they had brought props: parts of the modular flight simulator’s dashboard and electronics. I could tell that they had practised the presentation a couple of times because the whole thing went very smoothly.

The Q&A session also started quite well. There were a lot of questions, and the students seemed to be answering them all professionally because the professors were nodding in agreement. At the end of the presentation the students had hit ‘escape’ so that they could navigate through the slides using the overview on the left of the screen.

Spectacular mistake.

After about 10 minutes into the Q&A session, one of the answers took longer than the 2 minutes it apparently took until the screensaver kicked in, so the screensaver kicked in and it was heavily pornographic and it moved. At first the students didn’t noticstewardess-luxee, because they were standing with their backs to the screen. The audience, however, noticed immediately of course and burst out roaring with laughter. Some men were silently shaking in their chairs. A big man sitting right in front of me was making sobbing noises. Others  were nudging each other and slaying things like: “Yeah, we were like that when we were students, ha ha ha”. Like I said, only men in the room.

All in all, the presentation was a roaring success. And I got a pretty good idea about what makes Delft presentation different from what I was used to.

Nevertheless…

My advice: switch off the screensaver when you’re giving a presentation.

Also my advice: number your slides. This will make it easy for people to ask questions about specific slides, and you can keep PowerPoint in presentation mode. So you won’t have to hit escape to navigate through your PowerPoint.

Also also my advice: keep your porn on an external drive.

 

 

What’s the point of your presentation part two

Again: no I don’t think your presentations are pointless. This time I want to think about why we give presentations in the first place.

Consider conferences. From the point of view of information transfer, conferences are spectacularly inefficient, as you can usually only attend a fraction of the talks that are offered. Conferences have ecologic footprints that are just embarrassing, as attendees have to travel for hundreds or sometimes thousands of miles to get there (the mind boggles at the thought of the amount of airmiles that the average IEEE conference yields). And finally, attendees often suffer from hangovers disguised as jetlags for days after the conference.

So why do we still go to conferences (and don’t tell me it’s to feed that hangover), when in this day and age it would be much more efficient to have an electronic equivalent. It must be possible to organise an online conference that people can attend without leaving their office. The talks you were unable to attend could be recorded and attended “asynchronously” later on. Think of the money and the planet we’d save!

Why don’t we?

It’s because of lunch. Conference lunches are important. This is where people get to mix and meet and network. Sometimes people are expected to move to a different seat in between courses in order to meet more people.

It’s also because of impact. A real live speaker has much more impact than his recorded self. Also he can react to what happens, adapt his talk to help the people in his audience understand the difficult bits and answer questions. And he won’t react when you hit the pause button, so you will have to pay close attention.

And it’s because of the networking possibilities. Scientists don’t attend conferences to absorb as much information as they can. They attend conferences to find out what is new and exciting in their field, investigate (and create) opportunities for research and collaboration, meet colleagues, things like that.

This means that the purpose of your conference talk, apart from informing your audience about what’s new and exciting about your research, is to facilitate the Q&A session that follows it. Maybe the quality of your conference talk can be measured by the number of hands still in the air when the Q&A session is over. And that’s something that you just won’t see during an online conference.

Nor will you see the wine that is usually served at lunch during conferences in France and Belgium.