The Better Presenter
Powerful. Inspirational. Emotionally moving.
Those are the words that best describe Dr. Daniel Lowenstein’s “The Last Lecture” presentation, delivered to a packed house in Cole Hall on April 25th. The Last Lecture is an annual lecture series hosted by the UCSF Graduate Division (and inspired by the original last lecture), in which the presenter is hand-picked by students and asked to respond to the question, ”If you had but one lecture to give, what would you say?” Dr. Daniel Lowenstein, epilepsy specialist and director of the UCSF Epilepsy Center, did not disappoint. In fact, I can say with confidence that he delivered one of the best presentations that I have attended.
Rather than attempt to paraphrase his words, or provide a Cliff Notes version that doesn’t do his presentation justice, I will instead encourage you to watch the video recording of his presentation. The video is an hour in length, and if you have any interest in becoming a better presenter yourself, it is a must-watch. After the jump, we’ll explore my top “top 5 lessons learned” from Dr. Lowenstein’s presentation.
Click the image above to view the video. If you have trouble viewing this video, you may need to install the Silverlight plugin.
Last Lecture – Top 5 Lessons Learned:
- “PowerPoint” is still boring. Dr. Lowenstein’s projected slide show was not typical PowerPoint. It did not consist of any bullet points, familiar and boring templates, or images “borrowed” from a last minute Google image search. Instead, used images from his own collection, and Prezi to build a canvas of images that moved in all directions, expanding, contracting and rotating to craft his message. The resulting slide show was personal, meaningful and most importantly, relatable.
- Story telling is the secret to success. When I first began studying the art of presenting, the idea of incorporating storytelling into a presentation was an elusive one. I am now convinced that storytelling is the secret to transforming a good presentation, into a great presentation. It is the glue that holds all of the elements of your presentation together, as well as the glitter that makes it shine. Dr. Lowenstein’s entire presentation was crafted into a story, the setting of which was established right from the beginning and illustrated by his first content slide. There were also chapters within the story, the most memorable of which for me was the Justice segment of his presentation, and his depiction of The Basement People. He didn’t begin by pointing out the original members of the UCSF Black Caucus that were in the audience, as most presenters would have done. Instead, he gradually painted a picture for us, so we could imagine what it was like to be a minority at UCSF over 50 years ago. He described their struggles in detail, and gave us time to relate, and even pointed out the fact that they had met in that very hall where we all sat. He didn’t reveal their presence until the end of the chapter, creating a crescendo of emotion, and the moment brought tears to the eyes of many audience members.
- Vulnerability equals trust. If you want your audience to believe in your message, you must first give them a reason to believe in you. And one of the most effective ways to make that happen is to share your vulnerabilities. In the eyes of the audience, this makes the presenter human, and it creates a bond between both parties. No one wants to listen to a sales-pitch presentation. Instead, they want the whole story with the ups and downs, so they can decide how we feel about it on their own terms. Just be sure to share vulnerabilities that relate to the subject of the presentation, because you’re going for empathy, not sympathy (which could have a negative effect). Dr. Lowenstein, when talking about Joy and Sorrow, shared one of his deepest personal sorrows, which was the unexpected passing of his son. In contrast, he shared a touching moment with his wife, expressing his love for her, right in front of the whole audience. These moments worked perfectly in the presentation because they were genuine, and they gave the audience a deeper understanding of Dr. Lowenstein.
- Don’t forget humor. No matter how serious, no matter how technical, there is a place in your presentation for a little humor. It can be used to lighten a heavy moment, open closed minds, and bring everyone in a room together (even if your audience members have very different backgrounds). Amidst Dr. Lowenstein’s presentation were timely moments of humor that seemed to come naturally from his personality. And hey, who doesn’t like a good male-patterened-baldness joke, anyway?! But seriously, if you can laugh at yourself, the audience has no excuse to not laugh along with you. There are two keys to using humor in your presentation; (1) it should be relevant to the current topic or story, and (2) it can’t be forced. If you’re not good at telling jokes, then try another form of humor!
- Present on your passions. As a presenter, your goal is simple – to instill in the audience an understanding of your message, and a belief in you. If you give them the impression, even for a moment, that you don’t believe in yourself or the message you’re presenting, you’re a dead man walking (or presenting) in the audience’s eyes. If you choose topics that you are passionate about, however, you will never have this problem. You may think it was easy for Dr. Lowenstein’s to be passionate about his presentation, because his task was, in essence, to present about his life’s passions… but I can assure you, it’s not easy to talk about your own life in front of an audience. In contrast, imagine that you have to give a presentation on, say, your department’s new accounting policies. To make matters worse, imagine that your audience is being forced to attend. What do you do? Surely, there is no passion to be found in accounting policy, is there?! Well, actually, there is, if you take the right angle. For example, does this new accounting policy save the department time, or money? And then, can that saved time and money be applied towards more constructive, or creative tasks that your coworkers actually want to do? If so, and you frame the presentation in a positive light, the audience will listen.
To top it all off, Dr. Lowenstein spent the last few minutes of his presentation reviewing each of the 4 segments of his talk, and then related it all back to a single, clear message. That, my friends, is an example of storytelling 101, so I hope you were talking notes!
If you also found inspiration in Dr. Lowenstein’s presentation, please share your thoughts below, and I’ll see you at next year’s “Last Lecturer” event.
I stumbled upon a real gem this week, thanks to the Presentation Zen master himself, Garr Reynolds. The gem is a recorded lecture given by Harvard physicist, Eric Mazur, titled “Confessions of a Converted Lecturer.” He describes the trials and tribulations that he went through while trying to be come the best lecturer, and teacher, that he could be. This is a man who truly cares about student learning. In my opinion, he absolutely crushes this one out of ball park and deep into McCovey Cove.
(Click here to cheat, and access the abridged version.)
Garry Reynolds did a great job of breaking it down, so rather than reinvent the wheel, I’m going to direct you over to his post for that. Instead, I thought I’d share the following:
Top 10 Moments from “Confessions of a Converted Lecturer”
10. All along, there were signs that something was wrong.
Referring to various forms of feedback that he received from students throughout the semester about his teaching performance.
9. How do you come up with plausible wrong answers?!
Referring to the all-too-common process of developing a multiple choice test.
8. If I have the book, and they have the book, what am I going to do in class?!
Referring to early in his teaching career, as he was developing his teaching methods.
7. Shift focus from teaching, to helping students learn.
Identifying one of the most important messages from his “confessions” lecture.
6. The plural of anecdotes is not data.
Pointing out the fact that educators tend to throw out the scientific method when it comes to assessing their performance and teaching methods.
5. You don’t benefit from watching someone else solve a problem. YOU have to do it.
This one is self-explanatory.
4. Teaching is more than just the transfer of information. Assimilating information is the hard part of learning, but we put all of our efforts [as teachers] into the easy part, which is the transfer of information.
3. To quote Socrates, 2000yrs ago- we should teach by questioning, not by telling.
That ancient Greek dude was smart!
2. The better you know something, the more difficult it becomes to teach.
This one really hits home for me, because I talk about “the curse of knowledge” in all of my workshops. It’s so true, especially in health sciences!
1. The lecture method is a process whereby the lectures notes of the instructor get transferred to the notebooks of the students… without passing through the brains of either!
Are traditional indicators of success, end of semester evaluations and standardized test results accurate, or misleading? I’ll give you one guess as to what his feeling on that matter is (and I agree completely).
In the most basic form, his current teaching method consists of two parts. (1) Students are assigned pre-class reading. (2) Class time is used to delve deeper into the areas that are difficult.
He goes on to say that it’s impossible to sleep in his class because every 2 minutes a classmate is talking to you, and there is a continuous information flow happening between everyone in the room! Sounds pretty great to me, and this also gives me flashbacks to the physics class I took in college, which was NOTHING like that.
And finally, here is a great example his teaching style in action:
What do you think? Is he completely out in left field, or is he so right that it’s scary?!
John Cleese is my new hero. His genius extends well beyond the confines of Monty Python. I had heard about his lecture on creativity from multiple sources, and finally watched it. In my opinion, he really nails it. Watch the video, and then we’ll discuss its connection to presenting better after the jump!
“Creativity is not a talent, it’s a way of operating.”
I often ask attendees of The Better Presenter workshop to raise their hands if they consider themselves to be creative. I normally see a few hands go up, reluctantly. I think it is because we have forgotten how to be creative, and also because we think you either have it, or you don’t! As Cleese clearly explains, we are all creative, but we have to work at it. We need to “quiten our mind down” and get into the right state of mind. When I’m planning and designing a presentation, this is exactly what I attempt to do. I try to find that creative state of mind, and it definitely takes time and discipline to get there.
As he goes on to explain, you need a few things to achieve this creative, or “open” state of mind. Here is a quick summary:
- Space – seal yourself off so you cannot be disturbed, create an oasis of quiet.
- Time – designate a specific period of time for this creativity to take place, with clear lines for normal life to stop, and then start up again.
- Time (again) - you must allow yourself to be comfortable with taking the extra time to find the best creative solution, instead of taking the first thing that comes to you, because “maximum pondering time leads to the most creative solution.”
- Confidence – you must not fear making a mistake, you have to be free to play, and take risks.
- Humor – nothing gets us from the closed mode to the open mode faster than humor!
If these techniques are new to you, I recommend trying them out during the brainstorming phase of your next presentation. This will set you off on the right foot, and you might be surprised at what you come up with. I find that I need to do this somewhere other than my office or home, because there are far too many distractions and opportunities for disruption in those two environments. Empty classrooms, the library and coffee shops are my go-to places for creative work.
And just remember, after you are satisfied with your creative output, to return to the “closed” state of mind, to get the project done!
When was the last time you went to a seminar and didn’t sit through at least one boring presentation? I suspect it’s been a while. Slide after slide of charts, and scatter graphs, and bullet points, all delivered in a monotone voice by a talking suit, right after lunch… I’m getting exhausted just thinking about it. Well you’re in luck, because I’ve found the perfect solution to combat this boredom, and it’s called Seminar Bingo. Enjoy!
Image originally posted on PHDcomics.com, here: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=847
If you want to be a well respected blogger with a contingent of loyal followers, you need to be entertaining and relevant, and you also need to back up your posts with legitimate data and references. Taking my own advice, and not to be outdone by my peers, I decided to do some serious research for this post. I wanted to find proof that PowerPoint is the driving force behind a number of trends in higher education… trends that adversely affects a student’s ability to learn. So naturally, I bought a time machine on eBay, and traveled 50 years into the future to witness the results of these trends with my own eyes. What I saw was frightening, yet predictable. Here is an excerpt from my time travel journal:
March 6, 2063 ~ Textbooks are officially dead, and word on the street is that they were killed off systematically and without mercy by well-placed PowerPoint bullet points and stylish clip art. Student are building bonfires Ray Bradbury style. White board markers are outlawed in universities across the nation, and instructors are required to use government-issued PowerPoint templates and laser pointers when lecturing. I have been hiding out with a small contingent of outcasts who call themselves Citizens Against PowerPoint Abuse (CAPPA for short). They organize regular demonstrations against PowerPoint and advocate for a return to the good ‘ol days of group projects and learning games. In their eyes, the world is coming to end, and on the day of reckoning, it will look like this:
But seriously folks [insert laugh track], it is 2013 and PowerPoint is already changing the way instructors teach and students learn. Some of these trends are good, but many are not. In this post, I’d like to highlight a few of the more prominent trends, and then pose a few ideas for reversing them… before it’s too late!
Trend #1 – PowerPoint slides are the primary source of study.
- Description: Before or after class, instructors provide students with copies of the PowerPoint slides that are used during class. In the weeks that follow, students pour over those slides meticulously, searching for clues to solve the classic mystery, “what’s going to be on the next exam?” In some cases, an instructor’s entire curriculum is provided to students via PowerPoint.
- Issues: A PowerPoint slide deck can either function as the backdrop for a well-executed presentation (synchronous), or as a useful study tool that is consumed in solitary study (asynchronous), but not both. Presentations that contain too much detail can overwhelm and confuse an audience, and handouts that don’t contain enough detail are not very useful for study.
- Ideas: The strategy that I recommend is a two-step process. First, create detailed handouts that contain prose (paragraphs and sentences), data, and complex images that can be studied methodically. When the handout is complete, transfer only the most important elements to PowerPoint, and represent those elements with direct, bold, and simple imagery.
- Question: If we can all agree that scanning an entire page out of a textbook and pasting it into PowerPoint is bad practice, then why isn’t the same true for replacing textbook pages with PowerPoint slides?
- Additional Resources: Standardized testing is our educational system’s primary method for assessing student progress, and those tests rely heavily on multiple-choice questions. We are finally beginning to realize that this method is, at best, flawed. PowerPoint is the perfect compliment to this flawed strategy because it allows instructors to quickly and easily create a series of giant flash cards that explain the “what” but not the “how” or “why” of a topic. For more on the subject, check out this interesting article from The CaliforniaReport: The end of d) all of the above?”
Trend #2 – Lectures are information dumps.
- Description: Classroom lectures provide the instructor with an open-ended opportunity to share everything they know about a topic. The only limiting factors are the clock and the rate at which they press the forward button on the presenter remote. Slides are filled wall-to-wall with text and data. The instructor operates under the assumption that more slides are better than less. Some students may even doubt an instructor’s abilities if the PowerPoint presentations are not lengthy and complex.
- Issues: When an instructor chooses quantity over quality, they are setting everyone up for failure. Presentations that aren’t targeted at the audience, don’t provide context, and lack insight are not memorable. This issue is even more common in scientific talks given by researchers. We all want to impress and win the approval of our peers (and even our subordinates), so we may compensate by over-explaining things. Rather than spoon-feed our audience with tasty, memorable morsels of information that leave them begging for more, we cram the entire plate down their throats all at once! PowerPoint encourages this tendency by making it all-too-easy to just plop down slide after cookie-cutter slide with the click of a button.
- Ideas: There are many ways to combat this trend, and one way is with another trend! Have you heard of “flipping” a classroom?” The buzz-word is new but the concept is not. Essentially, a flipped classroom is one that requires students to complete passive learning activities before class (viewing recorded lectures, reading assigned material), and then uses class time for active learning activities that reinforce important concepts (group work, discussions, game-based learning, role playing, practice). If you are interested in flipping your classroom, we can help you choose a strategy for recording lectures. And let’s not forget that the key to delivering a truly insightful presentation is to simply spend more time on development. Yeah I said it! Begin by taking a step back from the details of your presentation to identify the message you’re trying to convey. Purify that message until its easily stated in one sentence, and in plain English. Now you can put your PowerPoint presentation on a diet until it’s lean and mean. Extra details that don’t directly support your message get trimmed off, important points are highlighted, and then end result is a presentation that is targeted, highly visual, and easy for the audience to digest. (What’s with all the food metaphors?!)
- Question: What makes a presentation truly memorable?
- Additional Resources: This is a great article from a faculty member in Stanford University’s School of Medicine, calling attention to this issue as it affects research presentations: Opinion: Communication Crisis in Research. And for some more info on the idea of Flipping, you can start here.
Trend #3 – Class time is scripted.
- Description: Most higher-ed classes follow the same pattern. The students walk in, grab their usual seat, pull out a notepad/iPad, and gaze up at the projector screen just in time for the instructor to begin unleashing a full-frontal assault of PowerPoint slides chocked full of bullet points, tables, charts and images. The information keeps coming, too, only slowing on occasion to allow for questions, until the scheduled end of the class period. Rinse and repeat.
- Issues: PowerPoint, by design, practically forces linear movement through a topic. Slides are created and presented one-by-one, and in order. This structure of predictability can easily suck the life out of a room, and places too much emphasis on the need to “get through all the slides” (I actually die a little inside every time I hear an instructor say those words), instead of placing the emphasis on ensuring the audience’s comprehension of the subject, by whatever means necessary.
- Ideas: I challenge all instructors to conduct at least one class per semester without PowerPoint or a laptop. This forces you and the students to get creative, and the change of pace can be refreshing. You can also mix things up and continue to use PowerPoint. For example, you can simulate branching in your presentation through the use of hyperlinked text or buttons, allowing you to move on a non-linear path that is dictated by the student’s needs. If you want to get a little crazy, skip PowerPoint and use Prezi, which completely debunks the idea of linearity by allowing you to create one, giant canvas of objects that can be freely explored in any direction. Another interesting idea is to completely replace informational slides with slides that pose questions to the audience, encouraging a discussion and discovery of the answer. This technique also serves to creating a pause in the action to allow for thought, and absorption. And don’t be afraid to abandon your PowerPoint completely to attack a question head-on with a white board and marker (“B” key to black-out the screen, “W” to white it out, these keyboard shortcuts works in PowerPoint and Keynote).
- Question: Learning doesn’t occur in a straight line. Instead, learning happens on a series of simultaneously-occurring tangents (say that three times fast) that include questions, answers, experimentation and in the end discovery. If this is true, then why do we discourage these tangents in the classroom?
- Additional Resources: In the 21st century, is the “factory model of teaching” really the best we can do? Check out this interesting article from Ken Carroll: Linear and Non-Linear Learning
So, now that I’ve thrown down the gauntlet and systematically blamed everyone and everything for ruining the fragile minds of our youth (sorry about that), I want to know what you think! Are you an instructor, or a student? How do you feel about these trends? Are there other trends that you’ve seen? Do agree or disagree with the points presented in this article? How do YOU think PowerPoint should be used in higher education?