Communicating, not presenting

I gave a “skills workshop” today to our students. I was asked to give a session on presentations. I told them the assignment had it wrong. We need to learn to become better communicators, and stop worry so much about presenting.
The take-home points were two: To communicate better, focus on story telling, and on story perceiving (or the application of standard human cognitive principles the way in which you tell the story). The focus on applying cognitive principles to design is fairly conventional these days, but I think the value of using a story telling approach is overlooked. I don’t mean litter a presentation with personal anecdotes, but to consciously develop and design the entire presentation as a single story, following classic story structure and tropes.
I prepared a handout summarizing the points I made during the session, and adding some additional tips, citations to further reading, and an example of how I develop my stories (before I even open my slide software), following the method described by Cliff Atkinson. (Having a take-away handout is one strong recommendation for an effective presentation.)
I’m also putting up my slides, though the way I use slides to illustrate my talks, the slides are useless without the speaker notes, and even then they are not very effective as a PDF file. They do demonstrate my commitment to using media to illustrate and emphasize and stimulate, rather than as set of on-screen lecture notes. (I only checked the screen momentarily during the talk, to verify synchronization.)
(My bad: The images are all either Creative Commons licensed photos from Flickr, or shots found via Google Images on the open web, but I was behind in my preparation and I neglected to write down sources. Usually I try to be better about giving attribution.)

Connective learning

I’ve been running into some discussions about “connectivist teaching”. The term apparently was coined by George Siemens [1]. Siemens and other refer to it as a “learning” theory, but Plon Verhagen points out that it is not so much a theory about how people learn, as it is a method of pedagogy for the digital age.
The central idea seems to be to teach through a process of having the learner build a network of nodes and connections, drawing together various resources and various ideas. In practice, the focus seems to be on “know-where” instead of “know-how” or “know-what”: learning where to find information, and how to move through a network of varied sources, assessing quality and reliability as you go.
Here is a simple class project presented as a YouTube video that illustrates the practice.
Siemens and Downes have offered an ongoing online course called “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge“. Siemens presents ideas and resources for e-learning at his elearnspace site.
[1] ”Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age”, International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, Vol. 2 No. 1, Jan 2005

My use of slides in teaching

Over the past two years I have drastically changed the way that I use slides while teaching. (Some students still see some “old style” slides because I haven’t finished replacing all of my teaching materials — it takes a lot of work!) I have noticed that in course evaluation comments many students appreciate my presentation style, but some criticize it. One of the criticisms I’ve seen a few times is that my slides are not very helpful *after* class.
I think, from the comments, that the students want me to provide them with a lecture outline that they can use as a set of pre-written notes to study. That sounds nice, and might be a good idea sometimes, though I worry that providing everything (the readings, the lecture, the lecture notes, the sample problems and sample exams with solutions) pre-written is not good for learning: where is the *active* learning that research has shown to be essential? In any case, I don’t feel an obligation to provide lecture outlines and notes that I have written (though some student comments suggest that they think they are entitled to this).

Norman teapot: afforandanceThe obligation I do feel is to teach effectively, so that students learn successfully. And I have been convinced that the very standard approach to classroom slideware is ineffective. The standard approach, of course, is to provide a detailed set of bullet points: essentially, a lecture outline with notes. Many faculty more-or-less use the slides as their script, if not quite reading from them nonetheless going through each bullet as displayed. Gosh, as students sometimes say on a related topic: “I read the reading assignment in the textbook — why just repeat it in class?”

The problem is deeper. First, putting a detailed outline and notes on the screen, and then talking through them creates a cognitive overload that decreases learning. Second, it promotes passive learning, which is less effective than active learning.
In my new presentation style I have worked hard (and believe me, it takes a lot longer to develop one of my new presentations than to prepare a standard bullet point outline presentation: I basically have to do the former first, to figure out what I want to say, then start from scratch to prepare the accompanying illustrations) to support learning by using multimedia material to complement the spoken words. I present material to illuminate, provide associative material, or provoke.

Leverage with incentives Some concepts are better understood (at least by some learners) visually, so I illuminate with a graph or a figure or an animation. Other times, I provide material — often with cultural references (though I perhaps overdo this, since many of my students are foreign and may miss some of the cultural references) — that I hope will trigger associative links, prompting students to more active processing and elaboration of the material. Yet other times I try to provoke them (with humor — often self-deprecating since that’s usually less likely to offend *others* — sarcasm, surprising mental leaps or associations), again to get them to think differently and more deeply (or simply to wake up :).

I use a mixture of visual and auditory material. Get the good stuff in The visual includes photographs, words (but rarely more than one sentence per slide, and often just one word or phrase to EMPHASIZE a point, not repeat verbatim what I’m saying), paintings, graphs and figures, etc. I occasionally include a video clip, but I’ve not developed good skills at finding video illustrations appropriate to my lectures. Pity: dynamic visuals usually attract attention better than static. I do make use of color, contrast, size and other variations to increase the impact of my visuals. For auditory material I often use clips of popular music (sometimes classical or jazz), but have also created a few auditory demos.
These presentations do not make for good outline/lecture note handouts! I agree with the students on that. But I think they make the lectures themselves much more effective. I also provide the students with readings, sometimes supplemented with pre-lecture “reading guides”. I put some lecture notes in the “presenter notes” section of my slide files, and then publish collapsed versions of the slides with the notes to provide partial lecture outlines.
Yes, I could do even more class preparation than I already do, creating in addition a lecture outline / notes document to handout (or post after class). But I don’t want to do that instead of my more kinetic, dramatic, and complementary visual presentations. I think the loss in cognitively active learning in the lecture would be a much greater loss. So, I put the priority on trying to give effective lectures, rather than bad lectures accompanied by slide outlines to review after class.
And finally, I really do believe that students learn better if they take some lecture notes, take notes on the readings, and then after class, use those (and the slides, such as they are, and the audio or video recordings of lecture that I usually make available for my large lecture classes) to make one’s own annotated outline. The activities of reviewing, distilling, organizing and summarizing are precisely the sort of learning activities we know are most effective.
I don’t mean to claim that I have any special genius at lecturing in large classes, or that my way is necessarily best. I think (and my course evaluation scores over the years support this) that I am a better than average classroom teacher, but that there is substantial room for improvement. That’s why I keep reading the research on teaching, and keep working to improve my pedagogical methods over time. I’ve put a lot of hours into analyzing, critiquing, and ultimately completely changing my visual presentation aids the past two years, and I’ll keep putting time into improving my lecture skills.

Making presentations (not Powerpoint shows)

The Tomorrow’s Professor mailing list sent out YAPPB (yet another PowerPoint bashing) today, but this is one of those I think makes some good constructive points about good presentation (whether for business or teaching or youth group programs, etc.), not just “don’t use PowerPoint”. (Mailing list items are not posted to the blog for a week or two, but see the link to Kaminski’s lecture below if you are looking for this before early- or mid-February 2008).
The one sentence message: Slides are excellent for certain types of visual aids, but they alone are not an effective oral presentation (and too heavy reliance on them, for things they are not suited for, is the road to a bad presentation).
The essay is referenced by Tomorrow’s Professor as being from a book by Laurie Richlin, but apparently she borrowed it wholesale (with attribution) from an outlined lecture by Stephen Kaminski. The lecture outline has more detail and more constructive bits of advice, so I recommend reading it and reviewing it from time to time. (Kaminski links to another useful lecture of his, “Some Tips for Using Visual Aids“.
One very nice point about relying too heavily on a single, flat, static visual medium: “Presenters fail to establish ethos, their most powerful appeal.”

Ethos is the personal appeal of the speaker. It is classified by Aristotle as an “artistic proof” that the speaker fashions in his presentation. It involves both verbal and nonverbal elements of the message and must be carefully managed for a presentation to succeed. With PowerPoint™, however, many of the elements that establish ethos are blunted or negated. Speakers don’t look at the audience and the audience doesn’t look at the speaker. The subtle nonverbal cues are lost such as eye contact, posture, etc. Presentations tend to be read off the slide or handouts, flattening delivery.

Constructive advice: use multiple aides to demonstrate and illustrate: people, objects, models, figurative representations, maps, charts and graphs, spreadsheets, web pages, animations…

Lessig presentations

Prof. Larry Lessig, well-known scholar on Internet (and constitutional) law, is not only an excellent scholar but also an excellent public speaker. One of his signatures is his presentation style: he has developed an idiosyncratic use of slides to enhance, not detract from, his talks.

His style, in brief, is to use many slides with very little information on each: often one word or one picture. These serve to illustrate or punctuate what he is saying, sometimes as frequently as a few different slides for a single sentence. He typically places the white words in a crude typewriter font on a black background (sometimes reversing the colors for emphasis).
To make this work, Larry gives highly scripted presentations, with the slides tightly timed to his delivery. It’s not a style that would work well, I’m pretty sure, for a classroom lecture or a scholarly presentation to a conference of new research, at least in many social science, engineering, or hard science fields. But for policy talks (which is Larry’s primary forum in recent years), and some other presentations it is highly effective, and Larry has something of a cult following for this style.
To see a superb example of this (and a very interesting history / policy talk on network neutrality), Carl Malamud put together a Quicktime movie that combines a recent Lessig speech and his slides. Unfortunately, it’s a 239 MB download, so use broadband and be patient. Even watching just five minutes is quite stimulating.

Multimedia learning

I just ran across a book that looks interesting:

Richard Mayer: Multimedia Learning
Richard Mayer: Multimedia Learning

From the description on the Amazon site:

For hundreds of years verbal messages have been the primary means of explaining ideas to learners. Although verbal learning offers a powerful tool for humans, this book explores ways of going beyond the purely verbal. An alternative to purely verbal presentations is to use multimedia presentations in which people learn from both words and pictures–a situation the author calls multimedia learning. Multimedia encyclopedias have become the latest addition to students’ reference tools, and the world wide web is full of messages that combine words and pictures. This book summarizes ten years of research aimed at realizing the promise of multimedia learning.

Digital storytelling

Dana Atchley was a pioneer in digital storytelling, and an evangelist for the use of rich storytelling techniques for business and professional presentations. He died in 2000.

Stories are how we connect on the most fundamental, human level. Stories are the best way to embody, share and remember knowledge. Before the advent of the written word stories were the only way of communicating history.

He was one of the early critics of bullet-point presentations, which he referred to as “corporate Sominex”. You can get a sense of his talents and style from the website of the Digital Storytelling Festival he ran.
I have long understood that storytelling is one of the most effective ways of communicating complex information. I learned a fair bit from a little-known book by one of my former Ford School of Public Policy colleagues, Martha Feldman. In Reconstructing Reality in the Courtroom (with Lance Bennett; Rutgers Univ. Press 1981), she argues, based on field case studies, that juries navigate the maze of evidence, rhetoric, body language, and legal tactics by organizing them into a story, and that the side that presents the most coherent, internally consistent and compelling story wins.