Answer the questions or question the answers?

Sometimes I drive my students mad. And I do it on purpose too. You see, instead of giving them answers to their questions, I give them more questions. I’ll give you an example.wrong_question_header

Student: “Please, Bob, should this trade-off table be included in the text or should I move it to the appendix?”

Bob: “Well, that depends. Who do you suppose will be reading it?”

Student: “Why, you are, I guess! I don’t know.”

Bob: “Would you agree maybe, that I am unlikely to read the professional technical reports that you will be writing after your graduation? Would you also agree then, that there must be somebody else who will be reading them, and that it would be wise to figure out who they are?”

Student: “Yeah but you are reading this one and there must be a proper place to put this table. Can’t you just tell us where it is?”

Bob: “Let me put it this way. Why did you make this table in the first place? What do you want your readers to do with it?

Student: “Well, we want them to be able to check whether the argumentation represented in the trade-off table is valid, so that they will understand and accept our choice for the best concept.” (I admit they don’t usually put it quite like this.)

Bob: “Okay. That accounts for its wonderful level of detail. And who would that be doing this checking?”

Student: “That’s easy. Engineers of course!”

Bob: “Excellent! Remind me, what kind of report are you writing again?”

Student: “A management report.”

Bob: “Ah. And do you maybe remember what we discussed during last week’s lesson on presentation skills?”

Student: “Yes, we discussed how there are several different ways to present scores in an oral presentation.”

Bob: “For example?”

Student: “You can give the actual scores, you can use symbols, like pluses and minuses. And colour codes, like red is bad and green is good.”

Bob: “And what might be the reason for the differences between these presentations?”

Student: “That way you can vary the amount of detail depending on your audience’s expertise and needs.”

Bob: “And?”

Student: “You can give them your interpretation of the scores this way.”
questions roadsign

Bob: “Brilliant! So how do you think this strategy might be applied in our present situation, considering that you are writing mainly for a manager who just wants to know the outcome of your trade-off and present this to her team?”

Student: “Ah! You mean that we might put this highly detailed version in the appendix for specialists, so they can check our results, and present a low-tech version for the project managers in the body of the report?”

Bob: “Wow!”

Student: “Why did you not just tell us what you wanted?”

Bob: “What would you have learned?”

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…