How To Present Well: Find the Through-Line

I wish it went without saying but I need to say it: you should love your presentation topic like a child. The thought of it should fill you with purpose and set a grin to your face which others around you will find annoying.

Expect your audience to have exactly 20% your enthusiasm. Thus, if your enthusiasm level is only at 70% throughout your presentation, the best you can expect of your audience is 14% enthusiasm. 14%! That’s science, people, don’t try to argue me on this. If you aren’t feeling it, please don’t inflict your tepid emotional state on the rest of us.

So we’ve established your love affair with [topic x]. In my case, this last year I fell deeply, romantically, in love with an assessment method that empowers kids instead of sucking them dry. I also became infatuated with the power of little things like show and tell, off-topic questions, and engaging visuals — utterly inconsequential gewgaws on their own — to compound and generate an astonishing buy-in from students who don’t make a habit of buying-in to school.

I wanted to share all of that with my audience of soon-to-be math teachers. Problem was, for about a week, those bullet points didn’t play well together at all.

But then I found the through-line, the narrow path which plunged through all of that brush and more.

I can put it to you in a paragraph:

Math generates “rollover negativity” like few other subjects. Rare is the kid who’ll declare, “I suck at science,” whereas the declaration “I suck at math” echoes around, oftentimes amplified by parents who believe it also. Science classes (just for example) vary enough year-by-year — think: biology, chemistry, physics — that most students come to each new class harboring the possibility that “maybe this one’ll be different.”

Kids think that math is math is math and math teachers have done a lot to perpetuate that deception. Math teachers — by which I mean other math teachers, ha, not you, of course — build and maintain it. Ask a kid to describe a math class — particularly a kid from a district where most of the students get their lunches free — and you’ll receive more or less the same description, a description which we’re rightfully gonna call out as a cliché. And since we here aspire to high-caliber math teaching, we’re going to kick those clichés out of our math classes.

This through-line is ideal for me. Not only does it let me flit in and out of a linear list of clichés — the textbook obsessive, the mathematical monomaniac, the traditional tester, to name three — while remaining dedicated to a single goal (kicking them out of my class) but it neatly establishes a story.

Your through-line must double as a story-line simply because people love and remember good stories. You’ve got to have heroes and villains. The villain here is powerful, positively diabolical, a canny tactician who’s spent years stacking the deck in his favor. When you’ve got some ninth grader whose previous eight math teachers were droning monomaniacs, we’re looking at a hard-scrabbling uphill climb. But watch what we’re about to do.

See what we did there with that story? Kinda got you leaning in towards your monitor a little? You have the first two minutes of your presentation to do the same.

Around this time the title comes into sharper focus. Mine is “Kicking out the Cliché.” Four words which offer an axis of symmetry, a title which is accentuated by the hard “k” sound at its beginning and end. I split two two-syllable words with two one-syllable words to give it a nicer ring than a lot of other candidates. This has all been an attempt at memorability.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. More here.


  1. Howdy, don’t think that I’ve stopped by to comment since early June (although don’t worry, I’ve been reading along the whole time).

    Not to overanalyze it, but maybe this helps in a small way to explain why my students love to watch NUMB3RS so much – it puts math into a drama where good fights evil (re: your heroes and villains theme above), and it’s definitely not your plain vanilla math class.