Adaptive Presentational Abilities
I am writing this piece from my hotel room at the Hyatt Regency in Albuquerque, after having listened to and been inspired by a series of presentations yesterday at the South West Texas PCA Conference. I look forward to being equally inspired today.
I attended several sessions in the “Popular Culture and Pedagogy” strand, many of which offered well-argued case-studies as to how popular cultural texts could be used to implement learning strategies in different classrooms, ranging from K-12 to the tertiary education level. I congratulate the presenters on their careful, well-prepared work.
On the other hand, I was a little perturbed to see that all the presenters adopted precisely the same presentational strategies. They all came to the conference armed with PowerPoint presentations, and either read from their papers or talked directly to the audience, using the slides as an aide-mémoire.
PowerPoint is a useful mode of communication, but it should be used sparingly. There are a few basic rules for making slides, which many of the presenters could do well to learn:
- Slides should be not too colorful, nor contain too many images. This simply distracts the audience from the topic in hand.
- Slides should contain a MINIMUM of written text
- The font used in this written text should be sufficiently large, so that audiences in a large conference hall can read it
- Images should be sharp, concise and reinforce the arguments presented
Perhaps more importantly, what I think all presenters should learn is that PowerPoint is not a substitute for the presentation, but a means of helping audiences understand what the basic arguments are. It should not distract but reinforce the attention.
Such observations might seem clichéd, but they need to be borne in mind whenever a presentation is being prepared.
More importantly, most of the presenters need to learn how to communicate with their audiences. They need to adapt themselves; to refine their techniques and understand that they are supposed to be entering into a dialogue. I heard a lot yesterday about the importance of this intangible concept known as “critical thinking” – perhaps the focus of attention should be shifted instead to the more practical (and measurable) ability of “effective presentation abilities.” These include:-
- Look at your audience while you are speaking and try to gauge their reactions. If their attention wanders, try to recover it by looking at people and smiling;
- Do NOT read from a paper if at all possible. Use a series of bullet-points that you can talk around. Audiences need to understand the basic framework of the argument, rather than the critical apparatus surrounding it
- Speak SLOWLY and CLEARLY. You might be nervous about talking in front of a group, but try to overcome those nerves through deep breaths. Focus your attention on one object or person in the room, and imagine you are speaking to them in a one-to-one situation.
- Try to MOVE about the room. Audiences will need to follow you as you speak, and this helps to sustain their attention;
- A presentation, as opposed to an academic paper, needs to be SHORT and CONCISE. You do not need to fill it with reference after reference, but focus instead on the argument.
Most of these abilities are taught at the undergraduate level in courses such as composition, but they need to be continually reinforced. By learning to adapt through such abilities, speakers can communicate their personalities to audiences and thereby provide the framework for further dialogue. This can lead to further opportunities for learning, both for speakers and their interlocutors.
Sometimes I tell my learners to imagine they are about to dive off a high board into the sea, or a pool. Either they can look down and worry about what will happen, or they can jump off and see what happens. The latter option might seem high-risk, but provides an opportunity for mental as well as personal growth through adaptation; in other words, taking advantage of a learning experience as a way of improving oneself.
It would be nice to see more people, especially early career academics, taking this recommendation to heart.