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.