When I first started assigning presentations in my classroom, that was all I did: Assign them. The students were given some guidelines, but they were essentially left on their own to figure out how to plan and perform their presentations. And for most of my students that meant creating a PowerPoint that had every word they were going to say scripted on each slide because their plan was to read it to the class while facing the screen, sheepishly looking over their shoulder every once in awhile to see if they still need to keep going.
Presentations in my class used to be so painful. I’m not just talking about me. It was painful for the students too. They didn’t like preparing for them, didn’t like delivering them, and didn’t like being in the audience. But I have learned a trick that makes the presentations so much better.
Monday’s post is the story of how everything changed for me and my students when it comes to teaching, not just assigning, public speaking. But even when I started making changes to my instruction and assessment of public speaking, my students were still hitting a major snag. Once I figured it out, things became much clearer about how I could help.
Just like any person trying to make a significant change in his or her life, sometimes our biggest barrier to improvement is our old habits. With presentations my students had a bad habit: creating visual aids. Most of the time their visual aids distracted them from building meaningful presentations. The thing that was supposed to help them, made them weak public speakers.
So I kicked them out! Got rid of ‘em. Now, for at least the first semester, my students must present without them. Let me tell you the 3 chief reasons to have your students get rid of their visual aids immediately.
1. Too much energy goes into creating them. Even when I started to properly instruct students in how to prepare for a presentation, they were still operating out of reflex, starting with their visual aids. Before they were enrolled in my class, when they were assigned a presentation they would build PowerPoints because that’s what they were rewarded for. Delivering a well spoken presentation earned little to no reward. I’m wondering why teachers would do this. Why not just skip the painful and embarrassing speeches and have them submit the PowerPoint?
Instead, now I give them an outline (It’s a word document you may download and use, if you wish) they need to use to prepare their presentations. From that outline, they write a word-for-word script. No, they don’t memorize it, but it gives them a chance to see it all laid out from start to finish. I do urge them to use 3 x 5 cards on the day of the presentation. After they have concluded their speech, they give me all their materials. No visual aids.
2. Too much text on their slides. When I started to shift how I teach students presentation skills, I was clear that their visual aid need to be designed for their audience. They were instructed make it simple and clear. What showed up on presentation day were slides full of text. I notice that when students presented a slide with text from top to bottom, I read it. When I read the slide, I wasn’t paying attention to the speaker. Also, if they started reading at a different time than I did, it would create a dissonant echo chamber in my mind.
Another disappointing element of their visual aids were students–usually 1 out of every 3–who would put cute little moving animations on their slides. Everyone was so preoccupied with the dancing aliens and puppies, they stopped listening!
Visual aids are supposed to help, not get in the way. There is more value for the students to carefully consider and build the content of what they are going to say. If they are busy typing out 75 words on a slide, or finding the right animation, they are not thinking about how to make their message engaging for their audience.
3. Too much dependence during the presentation. I know that you have seen this before. When students present, they take their cues about what to say from whatever shows up on the next slide. You can see it on their faces. As they are about click, they are thinking, “What’s next?” Then when the content shows up, the thought registers, “Oh yeah, that’s right,” then they start talking. It’s bad when the content appears and they forget, so they must pause to mutter a few lines under their breath to jog their memory. Then they say aloud, “That’s right,” and head on with their point. Finally, it’s just sad when they can’t even remember a thing from the slide, so they give a shaky reading of the information and make an off-hand comment about it.
In these scenarios, it’s clear that the slide is the master, and the students do its bidding. We all know it should be the other way around. All presenters, students included, need to know what’s coming next and how it highlights and helps the presentation. Instead of 70+ words, how about 7? They should try get it down to 3. But 1 is even better, in big bold letters. Better still, is an image. Not a hodge podge collage of pictures. Just one single, solitary image.
Really, to get the students to reset, just take away the slides. They can’t use them. At least, that’s what I do for a semester. It forces them to build a captivating speech and to really pat attention to the performance value of the most interesting element of their public address: them. They don’t think they are the best thing going for their speech, but it’s really true. If they can put the right kind of life in their voices, make a timely gesture, or use body language effectively, everyone will be hooked. They don’t need slides.
Help your students out. Take away their visuals. Make them be the most interesting part of their speech. When the time is right, and they know how to captivate their audience, bring visual aids back in.
How about you? How are presentations in your classroom? Do you have any tips about how to make your students better speakers? Let us know by leaving a comment below. And if you know someone else who would find this valuable, please share it with them.
Top Photo: Jeremy Yap