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…

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.

 

Speaking Anxiety and golden retrievers

A couple of months ago I had a student in my group who got so nervous when he faced the other students to deliver his presentation that I was afraid he was going to faint. He was trembling, he looked pale except for the red spots in his neck, he could only make choking noises and his eyes were getting bigger and bigger. Some people say that when you are nervous about speaking in public you should imagine that the audience is naked. If he was trying this it wasn’t helping very much. In fact, he looked as if he was imagining that he was standing in front of a pride of hungry lions.

You don’t want fainting students in your group. It is bad for morale. The student who has fainted will feel embarrassed, and the other students will feel disheartened. They still have to do their presentation and nervousness is contagious. So after a few seconds I stopped him and sat him down in a chair in front of the group, facing the other students. “Do they still look scary when you’re sitting down?” I asked. He looked around carefully, disbelievingly, as if I had just performed a magic trick. Then he brightened up and set “No, this is much better, thanks.”

I let him do the entire presentation sitting down. It was still rubbish: he got stuck a couple of times, stammered a lot, forgot all about his PowerPoint and he clearly had not practised, but at least he was talking and he knew exactly how to prepare for next week. He got a big round of applause from the other students when he finished, which must have done wonders for his confidence.

In the next meeting I told him to sit on a table. One step up as it were. And so we continued. After a few sessions he was able to deliver his presentation standing up unaided. In the end his final presentation was actually quite good and he passed the course with flying colours.

So what can you pick up from this? Well, first of all it shows that you should practise your presentations in front of an audience. That is the only way you will experience what that feels like. And yes, practising in front of your friends may feel awkward but you can bet it feels a lot more awkward to ‘practise’ in front of a real audience.

Secondly, many people who have speaking anxiety can be helped by bringing down the level of formality. In this case my student felt a lot more comfortable when he sat down. He might also have benefited from the “coffee break exercise”: students walk around the classroom, meet a colleague and tell them about their presentation. If you repeat this a couple of times the students will know each other a bit better, which makes them less scary during the presentation. And besides, they will all have talked about their presentations a couple of times, which is good practice.

P.S.: A colleague of mine recently told me that she tells her students not to imagine that the people in the audience are naked, but that they are dogs. Preferably golden retrievers. Golden retrievers will love you on sight and they will believe anything you say. She says it works wonders.

I don’t know. Give it a try and let me know if it works.