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The Sound of All Hands Clapping

Standing in front of a crowd of strangers, or peers for that matter, can be a disconcerting experience for anyone. As an educator, I do this on a daily basis, but there is a clear difference between lecturing in a classroom and giving an academic presentation at a conference. In the context of a conference you are presenting to your peers, people who may, or may not, judge you based on your performance. You may be the “expert of the hour” during your time on stage, but that does not mean that you are the most informed person in the room. On the other hand, in the classroom the teacher’s expert status is less questionable, and is in a completely different situation. The classroom teacher does not necessarily fear the negative judgment of his/her students in that same way that he/she does that of his/her peers.

Is this a bad thing? Maybe, maybe not. As classroom teachers, we certainly need to take into consideration the way that our students perceive us, particularly as many of us step out of the “teacher-as-expert” model and embrace more open approaches which empower students to take more control in the classroom. In this situation, the teacher can no longer safely hide behind his/her expertise, and must rely more on social relationships to foster a positive learning environment.

But what about when speaking for peers? Is this fear of negative evaluation by peers a bad thing? I think that it is a matter of how you look at it, and it is also a function of your own personal learning style. Do you enjoy collaboration? Are you open to constructive criticism? How do you react to criticism? When you don’t know the answer to a question someone asks you, do you panic or see it as an opportunity to learn? I think that all of these questions, and certainly many others, can have a profound effect on your confidence when speaking publicly.

I have been putting a lot of thought into the Art of the Presentation lately, as I have been in a number of discussions with peers on the subject. In the last few weeks I have worked with a number of people on polishing their presentations for conferences, polished a few old presentations of my own, and done a bit of research for the English Presentation course that I will be teaching next semester.

I would not say that I have formulated a bulletproof formula for the perfect presentation, as I know that I still have a far way to go, but there are a few things that I do keep in mind when giving presentations to my peers:

  • Be early / Be prepared: Get set up early and make sure that you troubleshoot any technical issue before the audience arrives. If possible, visit the location earlier in the day to do a dry run.
  • Meet and Greet: If you are presenting in a more intimate setting, introduce yourself to the first few people to arrive, get them on your side.
  • Relax: Don’t be afraid to move around and/or laugh a bit. Your audience is like a mirror, if you feel stressed and uncomfortable, so will they.
  • Involvement: Get your audience involved. Make them active participants, not mere receptacles of information. You will enjoy yourself more, and so will they.
  • PowerPoint: Keep your PowerPoint slides short and simple. KISS is the rule, don’t forget it. Your PowerPoint slideshow is not your presentation, it is support for your presentation. No complete sentences, no complicated graphs. Don’t give your audience the choice between listening to you or reading your slide. If you do they will read and wonder why you are even there…
  • Timing: You have a time limit, keep to it. Leave ample time for questions and discussion at the end, you just may learn something.
  • Follow-up: Take the time to speak with member of the audience one-on-one, or in small groups, after the presentation. Exchange business cards and make some connections. You just may discover your next research project and/or partner this way.

Some links for good presentation tips

And finally, How NOT to use PowerPoint
This video should be a required step in the registration process for PowerPoint!