When I first started assigning presentations in my classroom, that was all I did: Assign presentations. The students were given 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.
I welcomed the break from having to be the one up front, but those presentations were so painful. And I wasn’t the only one suffering. The students were too. The speakers and the audience.
Since those days, I have learned how to actually teach public speaking–as opposed to just assigning it. But even when I started teaching public speaking, I wasn’t seeing growth in all my students right away. When I was puzzling over this, one day I had an epiphany! Take Away PowerPoint. My students were relying on their visuals too much. They were hiding behind their slide deck. What they needed was to learn how to be the most interesting thing in the room.
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. Their visual aids were distracting them from building meaningful presentations. The thing that was supposed to help them, made them weak public speakers.
So I tossed out the slide decks! Just got rid of ‘em! At least for the first semester, my students must present without them. Let me tell you the 3 chief reasons to have your students ditch visual aids immediately.
1. Too much energy goes into creating them. Even when I started properly instructing students to prepare for a presentation, they still operated out of reflex, starting with their visual aids. Before they were enrolled in my class, when they were assigned a presentation they would build slide decks because that’s what earned them points, not delivering a well spoken presentation.
I used to do this too. But I’m wondering why. Presentations were so painful to watch, why didn’t I just skip the embarrassment and just have them submit the PowerPoint? After quite a bit of reflection, I think it comes down to us. Are teachers prepared to teach their students how to speak in front of an audience? Most of us are not. We’re clueless. So we build instructions around the most concrete element of a speech: the visual aids.
Now I do things differently. Here are the steps:
- I give them an outline (It’s a free download) 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.
- They practice with a partner, or on video (FlipGrid is great for this).
- They get feedback from their peers.
- They present!
I insist they 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. My students needed to learn how to make their speaking the most interesting thing happening in the room.
2. Too much text on their slides. When I started to shift how I teach students presentation skills, I was clear that their visual aids 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 noticed 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 spoke at a different rate than I could read the slide, it created dissonance.
Another disappointing element of their visual aids were students–usually 1 out of every 3–who would use a GIF on each slide. Everyone was so preoccupied with the dancing aliens and puppies, they stopped listening!
Visual aids are supposed to help a speaker make her point, not get in the way. There is more value for the students to carefully consider and build the content of what they will say rather than fill a slideshow. 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.
In this scenario, 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 be in control of their visuals. Instead of using the slide deck as their script, they need to reduce the amount of words. Instead of 75 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. Don’t even let them open PowerPoint. At least, that’s what I do for a semester. It forces them to build a captivating speech and to really pay attention to the performance value of the most interesting element of their public address: the speaker. And that’s the problem. They don’t believe they are the best thing about 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. Slides are unnecessary.
Help your students out. Take away their visuals. Make them be interesting. When the time is right, and they know how to captivate their audience, bring visual aids back in.
QUESTION: How do you teach public speaking in your classroom? Are visual aids too important in your students’ presentations?
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