Professional presentations

Robert A Buckmaster offers tips for teachers using technology

We live in a world chock-full of technology, and our jobs as teachers and trainers are increasingly enmeshed in DVDs, CDs, computers, the internet, etc. We may use this technology with our students in class, on teacher training courses or to give presentations at conferences. Sometimes, though, no technology is best and a brief dictation will do; at other times technology is de rigueur and the question then is how best to use it.

In my time I’ve also seen a lot of technology used by teachers and trainers in presentations and unfortunately, I’ve also seen a lot of it abused. So here are 15 tips on how to make the best use of three pieces of technology so that your presentations are professional and successful – the flip chart (yes, it is technology), the OHP chart (still with us) and PowerPoint – the tiber-presentation technology and the one that is most abused.

The flip chart
Flip ArtLet us start with the simplest – the flip chart. This relatively small white board on three extendable legs, with a pad of large sheets of papers, is simple training technology. It is suitable for small, intimate groups and has the advantage that there is little that can go wrong. You might run out of paper, but fortunately there is normally a built-in back-up – the whiteboard.

Although the flip chart is simple, fool-proof technology, you still have to know how to use it effectively.

Tip 1
Prepare in advance
Prepare the sheets of paper in advance and then just flip them over to reveal them. You should decide if you are going to flip over to the back or flip down from the back. You can leave blank sheets in between your prepared sheets in case you need to add things, record ideas from the audience, etc. if you find you don’t need these sheets, just turn over two at a time.

Tip 2
Use pencil outlines
If you can’t prepare the whole sheet before you start – perhaps because you want to reveal things gradually or build up an argument, then make a pencil block outline of the letters of what you want to write on the paper in advance and use the outline as a guide for your writing. This will help your writing look more professional.

Tip 3
Use notes hidden in plain sight
If you can’t prepare your sheets in advance or make pencil outlines, then just make a note in small writing in one of the top corners of the sheet of the points you want to make; you’ll be able to see the notes, the audience won’t.

Tip 4
Practice writing on the chart
Preparing in advance allows you to make your sheets look good – your writing will be level, with the letters of regular shape and size, and you can use different colours to emphasise your points. If you are writing as you present, you need to have practised writing on flip charts so that your letters are regular and even, stand in front of the board as you write to be sure your lines don’t slope downwards. Don’t write from one side.

Tip 5
Don’t talk to the chart
Tip5If you have to write on the chart during the presentation, remember to turn to the audience from time to time to keep in contact. Don’t talk to the chart!

Tip 6
Tear off the paper
Don’t forget you can tear sheets off and use them for groupwork, brainstorming or as posters around the room.

Moving up the technology scale, the overhead projector has been with us a training tool since about 1945. Because of its increased complexity, compared to the flip chart, there is more that can go wrong – for example, the bulb can blow, though most machines have a second bulb for just this kind of emergency.

As a projection system, there are, of course, more ways to misuse it – like the classic mistakes of standing in the projector light or putting slides or transparences upside down. However, the great advantage of the OHP over other projection systems is that you can easily go back to earlier slides to review them – your presentation is not necessarily linear – and you can even leave out slides and no one will know.

Tip 7
Use pictures as well as text
Your slides should use relevant pictures or charts to grab your audience’s attention. Remember: words often don’t have the impact of visuals.

Tip 8
Use a sufficiently large font size
Can you read your slides? Go to the back of the room – can you read the text from there? If not, use a much bigger font; at least 30 points for text. Use different sizes. A bigger font (even up to 70 points) is suitable for headings or titles. Remember that the further the projector is from the screen, the large the writing will be, so experiment with the placing of the projector if you can.

Tip 9
Remember that less is more
The slides are an aid to your presentation – they are not your presentation. The text and pictures and graphics on your slides are just the hook to catch your audience’s attention.

Keep to one topic per slide; a maximum of about six lines and up to six words per line. That’s all. Say everything else.

Tip 10
Maximize your value
If you have big chunks of text on your slides and you stand there reading them, what value are you adding to the presentation? Most people can read, so why are you there? If you must have long quotes (see Tip 9), then let people read them, sense when they have finished and then talk. And if you must read, don’t turn to the screen to do it. Stand to one side of the OHP, read off your transparency on the glass plate, and look up from time to time to make eye contact with your audience.

PowerPoint is becoming ever more necessary in teachers’ lives. Yet PowerPoint is often so badly used that it is frequently regarded as the bete noire of effective communication.

Also, with the increase in technology – having to match up a computer with a projector, for example – there are many more things which can go wrong. For this reason, it is best if you can use your own laptop if possible as you’ll know all the right settings.

Of course, all the tips for OHP slide design apply equally to PowerPoint, but in addition, keep the following things in mind.

Tip 11
Stand up
At a Eurocall conference in Finland I was shocked as presenter after presenter said ‘I’ll have to sit down to press the mouse button/advance the slides’. They promptly sat down and droned through their prepared remarks, moving from slide to slide. Each slide was filled with dense text and unreadable charts. It was extremely dull as there was no contact between the presenter and audience; no connection and little communication. Stand up and talk to your audience – move amongst them, make eye contact (don’t look at the screen behind you), be there with them, communicate!

Tip 12
Don’t go mad
PowerPoint is very powerful. You can do lots of fancy things such as having text fly in, zoom out, twist, collapse and so forth. Marvellous? No.

You should do none of these things. Just have very simple slide transitions and simple text appearance/disappearance. Avoid ‘PowerPoint madness’ – just concentrate on the message.

Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle, famously removed PowerPoint from his managers’ computers because he was fed up with them spending hours creating fancy PowerPoint presentations. Instead, he gave them each a small whiteboard and told them he wanted ideas, just ideas. If you must use PowerPoint, then keep it simple. Your audience will thank you.

Tip 13
Produce proper handouts
PowerPoint also enables you to print out your slides as a handout for your audience. This gives your audience something to take away and also somewhere for them to make notes.

But remember, your slides are not your presentation, they are just the hook. They are not your argument. A summary sheet of your ideas or thoughts or proposals is much more valuable to your audience than the slides they are going to watch – and indeed, why should they watch them on the screen when they already have them in front of them on a piece of paper? Write a proper handout and give it out at the end, not at the beginning.

Tip 14
Set up an escape-route to the end
A PowerPoint presentation is a linear argument in a way that an OHP-based presentation does not necessarily have to be. With OHPs, you can repeat and skip easily. With PowerPoint, you are trapped in a sequence from slide 1 to the end. If you are running out of time and you want to skip to the end, the most important slide or whatever, everyone can see what you are doing and will know that you got your timing wrong, you have too many slides or you have too much to say in the time available.

A clever escape from this trap is to put a hidden hyperlink on your final few slides to your last slide or two. If you realise you are running out of time, just click on the invisible link (perhaps in your logo at the bottom of the page) instead of going forward to the next slide. As if by magic, you will move to the last slide and can wrap things up without anyone being any the wiser.

Tip 15
Watch your timing
Connected to Tip 14 is the question of timing and this relates to all technologies and all presentations. It is your professional obligation to your audience and any presenters who might be following you to finish on time. There are no ifs or buts about this.

Even if the presenter before you finishes late, you don’t have the right to speak for your 45 minutes and so make everyone else start late, too. You have a time slot, with a beginning and an end which you should fit into. It’s only common courtesy and one of your key obligations as a presenter.

So what’s best then? In my view, for small groups you can’t beat a flip chart as there is so little that can go wrong/for anything larger or more formal, then an OHP is in my opinion much more flexible than PowerPoint. If you really need to use PowerPoint, then do make sure your have planned your presentation carefully.

Some flip chart tips were adapted from The Trainer’s Pocketbook by John Townsend, published by Management Pocketbooks.

Robert Buckmaster is a teacher, trainer and manager. He is currently the Director of Studies at International House, Riga, Latvia, and he occasionally does consultancy work for the British Council and Crown Agents. He is writing a book on English Grammar.

This article first appeared in English Teaching Professional, Issue 62, August 2009 and is reproduced here with permission from the publisher.

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