Powerpoints are not the only Route


A4 laminated lecture notes

I was very surprised to be contacted recently by an experienced lecturer who seemed flustered at being asked to present at a professional body event. This was someone who lectures a lot at the university and even at professional conferences. But they had been given four constraints by the organisers for the 15 minute session: no powerpoint, no lectern, cabaret-style microphone, and the audience would be standing up.

The academic seemed excessively anxious, and maybe because of my background in the theatre, thought I would have some ideas. This also shows perhaps how dependent academics have become on lecterns and on powerpoint. In this case the academic was used to powerpoint as speaker support (i.e. as their own notes).

My immediate reaction was that if you have no lectern, and a microphone in one hand, you are really quite constrained on how to hold and use notes. My personal preference is to use a small pack of hole-punched index cards secured by a binding ring, but the academic thought this might seem a bit old-fashioned to a professional audience. So my next thought was to get it onto one single piece of paper, ideally A5.

The lecturer had already prepared four headlines for the organiser’s session summary, and had in Word produced bullet points for each headline. So we cut and pasted that into Powerpoint, as PPT gives much more control over layout than Word. We then printed it as a two to a page handout format, which is A5. All seemed well until it turned out there would also be 5 minutes questions. The lecturer was used to referring back within PPT to deal with questions, for example referring to a definition at the start of the presentation.

So I asked to see the PPT normally used by the academic for a one hour lecture on the topic. It had 43 slides! We went through this and picked out 8 slides that would support answers to the most likely questions. These were saved to .jpg and then brought in as small images to make a second slide to add to the bullet point one.

This was printed again two to a page handout style, this meant one A5 sheet with the bullet points, the lower sheet with the shrunken slides. But holding this with one hand meant the paper was floppy.  So we examined sticking onto card, making two sided again by sticking, but the better solution was to laminate the sheet.

I understand the presentation went well. And this has made me think back to my experience as an actor and also a presenter of live literature events. I’m pretty sure this lecturer could have done the presentation by memory, so in a sense the A5 sheet was a prop. I recall a very high profile poet who would always come on stage to read their work and spend the first five minutes shuffling their script, dropping several pages, then making a big issue of pouring out and drinking a glass of water. Yet they went on to read utterly confidently for 30 minutes completely by memory, and of course this ritual with papers and water was simply a way of calming their nerves.

On the other hand a well chosen prop such as described above, can serve to give the performer confidence (and lecturing involves performance skills). The important thing is not to have props that get between you and your audience, physically or mentally. A lectern or AV pod can be a physical barrier, and it can be tempting to tether yourself to it. A sheaf of notes can give the message that one is not totally on top of the material, and more importantly prevent you from making eye contact and engaging in a lively way with your audience.

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8 Responses

  1. pascalecolonna

    July 14, 2012 1:35 pm

    Enjoyed reading that. How constrained we can be…
    It would be interesting to know why the audience was asked to be standing.

  2. angeladove

    July 24, 2012 10:22 pm

    Pascale, thanks for your comments. To answer your question I believe it was the nature of the event and the type of venue it was held in. And your question has made me think about the possible differences between lecturing/presenting to a seated or a standing audience. As teachers we are used to our students being seated, often for long periods of time. I have noticed how this can adversely affect the energy levels of students, and in some of my teaching work I ask students to stand up at certain points in the class to do an activity. Sometimes this entails group work standing around a table, or using a wall to post up findings. It is remarkable how this simple change from sitting to standing can alter the dynamics in the room, and how many students beome more engaged in the work.
    Presenting to a standing audience for 15 minutes means one needs to be extremely focused, with no room for “padding out”. It is infact rather a good exercise in communication skills.

    • pascalecolonna

      July 27, 2012 8:15 am

      That’s interesting! I use the walls too: I have used a very good activity where I blutack an article or various short articles cut into several paragraphs on the walls and I ask students to read and memorise as much as they can from the passages. They’ll have to memorise what they have read and report to the rest of the group. They are only given 5 mns.
      It’s good because students now have clearly defined roles, and this helps towards the discussion or debate that ensues. It does have a wake-up quality to it; it makes them move around the room with a clear purpose which has an energising effect on the following debate. They seem thrilled about it too: very rarely do we ask them to memorise on the spot so it helps them focus on key points too. And lastly it is fun for everyone – but you do have to choose your article carefully: it should trigger reactions.

  3. sianlindsay

    July 26, 2012 2:52 pm

    I also enjoyed reading this post Angela. I think PowerPoints help overcome the ‘mind-gone-blank’ syndrome (which I suffer with!) and are good for ensuring time management, but, I think now we’ve become a little lazy / over-reliant on PP, with the detriment that we no longer have a teaching ‘conversation’ with our students. I do think as teachers we should try and challenge ourselves to teach without the safety barrier of PowerPoint, but with the reassurance of a condensed set of notes as a prompt – to help when your mind goes blank and you’re suddenly staring at a room full of expectant students!

  4. Christopher Wiley

    July 27, 2012 3:01 pm

    Angela, thank you! I’ve often maintained that PowerPoint is not the only way to lecture, and that we have become too reliant on it – I’m sure we’ve all witnessed at least one speaker who has taken this to extremes and merely read from the slides. Recently I seriously considered delivering a whole lecture series without PowerPoint, just as an experiment. But I decided that audiovisual aids were imperative to essentially any lecture, and that PowerPoint was as good a way as any to deliver them. My guess is that the challenge being posed to your colleague was not to find something to replace PowerPoint, so much as to activate a different way of presenting entirely.
    As to the audience standing, I recently had an experience where I was chairing a debate (perhaps I’ll blog about this at some point) and found it strange that the speakers rose out of their seats to talk – this has never happened in this class in the past. And then I realized why: normally I would start the debate seated, but somebody else had sat in the chair I had put out for myself so I gave the introduction standing while I found a new seat. Inadvertently, I’d set the conventions for standing and sitting by my own actions. And this surely is another point being made by the professional body event: that the conduct of the speaker will condition the reactions of the audience and vice versa.

    • angeladove

      August 6, 2012 12:13 am

      Thanks for your very interesting comments. You were thinking of experimenting with a lecture series without power point, and I wonder if it really is the case that audio visual aids are imperitive to any lecture? Maybe so, but does that have to mean power point?
      I have successfully lectured just talking directly to students with some use of a visualiser.

      • Christopher Wiley

        August 18, 2012 10:46 pm

        It’s an interesting point. Audio-visual aids are certainly imperative in Music; I can’t speak for other disciplines, but given that information is so much more readily absorbed visually than aurally, I’d have said that any lecture entirely devoid of visual aids runs the risk of substantially limiting the students’ potential to learn. PowerPoint is just (for me) an expedient means of delivering the visual content – not the only one, of course, since I also make much use of Internet resources and DVDs. I did consider delivering visual content by means other than PowerPoint (e.g. the visualizer – though its image quality is not sufficient to view music effectively) but it felt to me a little as though I would merely be reinventing the proverbial wheel.

  5. angeladove

    August 20, 2012 8:51 pm

    Hi Chris,
    Thanks for this, it is really interesting that you say the image quality of a visualiser is not up to scratch for viewing music. I would like to know more about that.
    I like the “real time” use of the visualiser, and have successfully experimented with it with different groups. For example I use it to show objects/artefacts to students, and have also used it in lectures as a live demonstration. My students also seem to like it as a way of taking part in lectures, when they can do some group work and then come up and share the outcomes via the visaliser.


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