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The presentation reformation by David Moran

The presentation reformation

by David Moran

 Why is it that the presentations at teacher’s conferences are so awful? I sit there in the audience thinking how can you tell me something about teaching when you present like that. I imagine that if their lessons were like that their students would overthrow the teacher, assign them to purgatory, and replace them with a Nintendo Wii and a robotic talking dog. Why is it that at conferences teachers throw away all their skills, knowledge and expertise just because it’s a conference? Why would I prefer to have root canal treatment than sit through some presentations? What is it about conference culture that makes it so excruciatingly painful? It is time for a Presentation Reformation.

 Let’s begin with conference culture. Most presenters are trying to cram so much into a presentation. Those doing a PhD feel the need to explain their entire thesis in a 50-minute presentation. Those who have done some sort of action research feel the need to explain everything. Teachers know about things like cognitive load but for some reason feel that can be ignored in a conference presentation. That is not the point of a conference presentation anyway. If your entire PhD or action research can be condensed into a 50-minute presentation and still be meaningful and digestible to your audience, your PhD or action research might be lacking. I have always felt that the purpose of these conference presentations is to advertise your research, opinions or whatever. The point being that if you want to know more read my article, paper or email me for more information.

 Nevertheless, people try to cram in every piece of information into their presentation and information overload ensues. I also believe that most presenters present the way they do because that is what everyone else has done for the past 50 years. People are afraid to break away and do something different. This could also be linked to the fact that universities emphasize the importance of research over teaching and that perhaps these researchers are too far removed from the classroom and cannot present well anymore. I honestly don’t know, but I know most presenters are just awful.

 So what is it about presentations that makes them so bad and what is it that needs to be done to improve presentations.

 I put bad presentations into three categories:

1.  the content is poor;

2.  there is too much content;

3.  the design and delivery of the presentation is poor.

 There is not much I can say about number one, except to say that it is by far the most important aspect of a presentation. Content is king. However, as for points two and three I would like to add my 15 Theses for the Presentation Reformation.

 Here is my equivalent of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and if I could I would nail it to the door of every conference I attend.

 Out of love of truth and desire to see wonderful, engaging presentations, the following propositions need to be discussed by those attending conferences worldwide.

 1.     Keep your presentation simple. Simple design, graphics and text.

2.     Design your slides, do not decorate them. This means getting rid of visual clutter[1]. Make thoughtful decisions about what objects and text you place on the screen and do not be afraid of white  empty space.

3.     Reduce, reduce, reduce. Reduce what you put on a slide, be that text or colours. See point 2.

4.     Treat you audience as intelligent, well-educated people who know how to teach. Do not treat them as novice teachers. Disregard this if you are presenting to novice teachers. However, most people that attend conferences are not novice teachers. Do not always present to the most inexperienced person in the room. Push those less experienced to explore your topic further themselves. Invite them to read your paper or other related research.

5.     Decide on 1-3 key points and make sure you get these across to your audience. You cannot present your entire research in one presentation. Get the main point across so that the audience will want to go and read your research. Make them want more.

6.     Do not confuse a slide with a document. Garr Reynolds refers to this as a slidument. It does not serve the purpose of a document or a slide. This is fundamental. Most presenters at the conferences I go to present sliduments. You’ve seen this. A slide that belongs in a handout or better yet a published paper thrown up on the screen to suggest that the presenter has done their homework.

7.     Do not fill a slide with bullet points. Put the point you are talking about now on the screen and the next one on another slide and so on. If you want the audience to see them all together, create a final slide for that.

8.     This is my personal favourite or peeve. Do not read aloud what is on the screen. The audience can read faster, in their minds, than you can aloud.

9.     Do not give me a handout and then ask me not to look at it.

10.  Do not cut and paste sections of your research onto a slide.

11.  Do not feel that you have to use presentation software.

12.  Finish a little early. Most conferences run over anyway, and your audience will get fidgety towards the end of your presentation as they get ready to go to the next one.

13.  Use high quality graphics. Do not download any old photo from Google Image Search. If it is pixelated on your computer screen it will be 10 times worse projected. Do not use clip art. Clip art is bad. Use photos, if possible with people’s faces. People respond to people not clip art.

14.  Tell a story to get your point across. People remember stories more than facts.

15.  Think very carefully about how you display your data. Remember what you want the audience to see in your data and highlight that. See point 2.

16.  I had to add one more. Practice your presentation and if possible video yourself giving the presentation and then go through the very painful process of watching yourself. I know it hurts but it will be of great use.

There is a movement towards improving presentations and there are some wonderful resources available. Before I list some of the resources I want to remind teachers that what they already know about teaching applies to presentations as well. Present as you would teach. Here are some great resources for making better presentations.


  • Presentation Zen (2008) ISBN-10: 0321525655
  • slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations (2008) ISBN-10: 0596522347
  • Advanced Presentations by Design: Creating Communication that Drives Action (2008) ISBN-10: 0787996599



 Of late I have been much interested in the idea of visual literacy and how visual aides assist in the understanding and learning of complex ideas. The bibliographies of the books above have assisted me in exploring this area further.

 Next step, improving handout design and branding yourself.

 Best of luck with your next presentation.

[1] http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2007/clutter-0821.html

Author’s Bio:
David Moran is an English Lecturer at Qatar University. He also works as a freelance presentation designer and consultant. You can contact him at d.moran@mac.com

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