How I Present

After last year’s NCTM annual conference, Avery Pickford suggested that someone who gives presentations should give a presentation on giving presentations.

Far too humble to nominate our own selves, Robert Kaplinsky and I nominated each other for the task and partnered up.

Robert offered advice on getting your NCTM proposal accepted by NCTM. (Proposals are due May 1!) I offered advice on how to present that session after it’s accepted.

I recommend the video of my half of our session because my presentations tend to move. However, you’re welcome to read my notes below.

In all of this, I am motivated by selfishness.

Of NCTM’s total membership, only a small fraction attend the national conference and only a small fraction of that fraction present there. The ideas that can push math education (and my own work) forward live inside the heads of people who really need to share them.

I will share some of my workflow and style choices with you but a lot of that is just how I present, not how you should present. I’ll offer only two words of advice that I think every single presenter should take seriously.

To preface that advice, I’d like you to make a list of what you like and dislike about presentations you attend. Keep that list somewhere in view.

When I asked that people on Twitter to make those same lists, I received several dozen responses, which I’ll summarize below:

(People really hate it when presenters read from slides, FWIW.)

Testify

My best advice to any new presenter is to “testify,” to prepare the kind of talk you’d want to see yourself. Your talk needs to include the features you like and it needs to not include the features you dislike. Anything less is a form of despair.

In every presentation I give, I’m trying to testify to these truths:

  • I love this work. I need you to feel that.
  • I think teaching is important work. Feel that too.
  • But not so important we can’t laugh about it.

If you don’t leave one of my sessions feeling all of that, I have failed to testify to my ideals as a presenter.

So look at your lists. Do the stuff you like. Don’t do the stuff you don’t like. Let your presentation testify to your ideals. Be the presenter you want to see in the world.

Practice

The facts of the matter are that I have been a terrified and terrible presenter. I was homeschooled for K-8 so I wasn’t accustomed to giving regular academic presentations in front of peers. The first presentation I gave in my first year of public school was so lousy that its ending crashed into a wall of what would have been total silence if not for Drew Niccoll’s sarcastic slow clap.

“Great job, buddy!” he said, a line I still hear when the sun goes down and the lights go out.

Cut to 2017 and I have presented in all fifty states and a handful of continents and provinces.

All of this is to say, presentation skills aren’t biological. They’re practiced.

Teachers know this. You know how much better your fourth period lesson is than your first period. I’m on my eleventh period of the other talk I’m giving at NCTM. It looks nothing like the first time I gave it. So practice as much as you can. Present your talk at your school or district, your local affiliate, your state affiliate, at regional conferences – the same talk – before you present at the national conference.

That’s it.

Testify and practice. I think presenters would be more effective and audiences would be more satisfied and the world would be better if everybody did just that.

But the rest of this is advice I only give to myself. It’s the method I’ve used to prepare and deliver all of my presentations from the last five years. I only offer it in case it’s helpful to you as you think about your own process.

First, I wait a very, very long time to open up slide software.

I suspect that many novice presenters begin by opening PowerPoint. Me, I didn’t open Keynote until the week before my talk, about 90% of the way into my preparation.

Why? Two reasons. One, I want slide software to serve the ideas of my talk. Starting with slide software means my ideas start to conform to the limitations of slide software. Two, a lot of slide software encourages lousy presenting. If you add an extraordinary word count to a slide in PowerPoint, for example, the slide software responds by saying, “Sure, buddy. Lemme shrink the font up for you. Keep typing.”

Instead, I start by asking myself the following questions.

  • What is your big idea?
  • If your big idea is aspirin, then what is the teacher’s headache?
  • If your big idea is the answer, then what is the question?

If you don’t have a big idea yet, ask yourself what you’re trying out in your classes that’s different and interesting to you. Zoom out a little bit and look again. Do you see trends and common features in what you’re trying? That’s where you’ll find your big idea.

The other questions try to focus you on the needs of your participants. How does your big idea respond directly to a felt question or need.

Once I can answer those questions, I set up a bucket in my head.

It’s important that I set that bucket up in my head as early as possible. The existence of the bucket tunes my eyes and mind to the world around me. I look at photos, student work, conversations, activities, handouts, YouTube videos, quotations, and academic papers differently. “Could this go in the bucket?” I ask myself.

This presentation was formed from the contents of a bucket that was a year old. I have buckets in my head that are older than that, preparation for NCTM 2019, for example.

I take the contents of the bucket and shape them into narration in Google Docs.

I don’t assume I’ll have any images. A lot of great speeches were given before the advent of slide software, right? Did “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” need bullet points? Would PowerPoint have done anything but harm the Gettysburg Address?

The biggest mistake I see novice presenters with slide software is to assume that what they say is what audience participants should see.

My survey participants said they hate that kind of design. Cognitive scientists have found that you disadvantage your audience when you make them hear and read the same text simultaneously.

Advantage your audience, instead, by finding evocative, full screen visuals that illustrate, rather restate your narration.

Only now, with my talk almost completely developed, do I fire up Keynote.

I create loads of blank slides. In a note on each slide, I write what the image will be. In the slide description, I copy over my narration.

That was all I had three days before this talk. Loads and loads of blank slides. For people who start with slide software, that probably sounds terrifying. Me, I knew I had already finished the talk.

Creating the images for this talk took about a day and a half.

Here is that day and a half compressed down to 17 seconds.

From there I rehearse.

My goal for rehearsal is that you’ll sit in my talk and within minutes say to yourself something like, “I guess this guy isn’t going to screw up that bad.”

When your anxiety is high, your ability to learn from your experience is low. My rehearsal is an effort at settling your anxiety so you can learn.

Neutralize your fear.

You’re nervous. I get that. You work comfortably in front of 40 middle-school students but you feel paralyzed in front of a room of half that many adults. I get that too.

I only know one way to neutralize my fear, and that’s through love.

Love of myself, love of my work, love of the people I get to work with. As they write in scripture, “Perfect love casts out fear,” and “Love covers a multitude of PowerPoint sins.” (Paraphrasing there.)

In my next post, I’ll offer the presentation advice I received from 14 of my favorite math education presenters. Until then, add your own best advice in the comments.

2017 Apr 21. Updated to add the link to advice from the 14 presenters.

About 
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.

23 Comments

  1. Reply

    This is gold, Dan, and so down to earth practical, especially in emphasising that people should develop their own methods.

    Leaving the slide software until last is so spot on. I won’t even start until I have a metaphor or a shtick (e.g. I did a talk built around a parody of the movie “network” where I got the audience saying “I’m mad as hell…”) or even a visual theme (I use a lot of full screen pictures, little if any text).

    But as you are suggesting I spend more time letting ideas swirl in my head, and often it clicks when I am driving or walking in the woods, almost never in front of the keyboard.

    This is an interesting line that everyone needs to find for themselves.

    It’s interesting how much you write out. I have colleagues that spend months writing presentations as long form text, not that they read it, but to work out all ideas. I get really uncomfortable doing that. My notes are generally messy diagrams scribbled out, with a few key statements I know I want to say, but while talking, I am more comfortable if I have worked it our mostly in my head, and also leave room for improv in the moment.

    I want also to speak conversationally.

    I like the idea of the bucket- it’s so helpful just to keep swirling a collection of ideas, media, references that you are not quite sure how, if they connect. I start downloading a lot of images I might use as metaphors. A colleague keeps a running collection of YouTube videos and web site clippings in Evernote as a big bucket; he just saves them for potential interest all the time.

    I’ve gotten good use out of Kathy Sierra’s “Presentation Skills Considered Harmful” http://seriouspony.com/blog/2013/10/4/presentation-skills-considered-harmful

    Among things I loathe in presentations are More Talk / Less Show. I sort of have a rule of always trying to start with a demo or something for the audience to do. Too many presenters start off with a history of the project, and the funders, and their organization, and their objectives and almost never get to show what they are talking about. Show more than tell is my attempted self rule.

    Likewise many presenters forget the elements that work so well in film. They give away the plot in the opening scene. I have used a GIF that compares the Aristotle advice “Tell them what you are going to tell them; tell them; tell them what you told them” and how badly that would have worked for Hitchcock http://cogdogblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/psycho-tell-them.gif

    This of courses is your three-act play structure something I have used in many talks on storytelling.

    Looking forward to the next installment!

    • Thanks for the comment, Alan.

      I highlighted your remarks above cautioning against too much scripting. I think it’s an interesting line that different presenters will draw in different places. Generally, I agree. I want to be conversational. I want participants to feel like they’re in safe hands but that there is some room for the presentation to detour briefly. That implies a particular level of rehearsal and preparation.

      I also share your enthusiasm for Kathy Sierra! Her writing on focusing on the needs of the user (or the participant) is shot through those three questions that guide my presentations above.

  2. Reply

    Great timely blog, thanks Dan, love Desmos, and am thinking about presenting at a conference later in the year. All fantastic reminders.

  3. Reply

    Truth!

    General advice for any public speaker: the other people watching you speak want to see you *succeed*, as much as it feels otherwise. Use the crowd’s energy to your advantage — when you see them smile/nod/write/think, it’s because you’re doing it.

    The advice about slides vs talkin’ is particularly vital. As it relates to giving talks, people tune out the speaker as soon as the speaker starts reading slides. In cases when the speaker is reading the slides and I’ve been given a handout of those slides, I leave immediately, because I’m already holding everything I’m going to learn from the talk.

  4. Reply

    Like the associate pastor who only gets to preach twice a year when the senior pastor is out of town, don’t save up everything you’ve ever wanted to share with someone and try to do it all in one presentation! Just pick ONE thing and do it well.

  5. Reply

    What would you say to someone like me who feels like anything I do well, even things I originally thought of myself, have already been presented many times by others? I feel like I could share good ideas with other teachers, but my ideas/methods are not original, even though they may be new to some teachers.

    • Hi Jane, thanks for the note. Personally, I suspect you’re undervaluing a) the unique spin you’re bringing to these ideas as well as b) your unique manner of presenting them, and c) the need for even similar-sounding talks to be presented over and over again. Get it!

    • In my experience, even if things have been presented, everything is changing every day. If you do something well, I can learn from you, even if the idea has “been presented to me” many times before… and usually they haven’t, really. Everybody doesn’t have to be a bigwig :)

  6. Reply

    To Jane:
    I’m always refreshed and enthused by seeing teachers share their classroom stories. If you have a favorite lesson, take lots of pictures and collect artifacts and share those. Even if they seem like classroom routine to you, they provide an open window into your classroom. Seeing how other teachers “spin” lessons are often the most valuable learning experiences for me at conferences. Tell the story..we’d all like to hear it!

    Lots of great tips here Dan, especially the tips regarding images.

    Hot tip.

    And while nerves are always an issue when presenting, I’ve found having music playing as people enter, and circulating the room and meeting and greeting helps a conference room feel more like my classroom – then it’s easier to dive into the presentation.
  7. Reply

    In all of this, I am motivated by selfishness.

    I’ve been thinking about what it means to be motivated by selfishness versus altruism. I first heard your advice to be more selfish (less helpful, I suppose) in your TMC talk about online math teacher communities. Have you made this explicit in any of your writing? Do you think altruistic thinking goes wrong in a way that selfish thinking doesn’t? (Is it a mistake to think of this as related to regulated vs. free markets?)

    • Have you made this explicit in any of your writing? Do you think altruistic thinking goes wrong in a way that selfish thinking doesn’t? (Is it a mistake to think of this as related to regulated vs. free markets?)

      Nothing explicit. Here are a few priors, though;

      One, it’s easier for me to appeal to people’s self-interest than their altruism. It’s easier for me to appeal to my own self-interest.

      Two, few people like to be another person’s altruism case. I’m not helping people with their presentations because I think they need my help. I’m helping them because I want them to present to me, so I can know what they know. (Same here, which was perceived by many to be virtue-signaling. Nope. Selfish.)

      Three, the world of education is strewn with the corpses of altruistic individuals who worked hard, worked selflessly, and burned out. What would benefit students and teachers more? If teachers took on an extra class every day at the same pay (altruism) or if they argued for an extra free planning period every day at the same pay (selfishness). It’s not true in every case, but when teachers take care of themselves, a lot of good tends to follow.

  8. Reply

    Thank you for all the work and thought you put into presenting well.
    Storytelling is the most powerful tool to make positive change.

    Hot tip.

    When I see great presentations, there is humility that accompanies the humor. I don’t hear a lot of “I, I, I.”
  9. Reply

    1. Stay on topic. (It’s too easy to veer off and then have to speed up to finish up)
    2. Don’t tell too much about yourself, just enough to introduce yourself. If anyone wants to know more they will ask afterwards.
    3. Don’t assume that others know more than you. Be proud of what you know and share it. If they know what you are presenting already they will leave.
    4. Don’t be offended if people walk out to find another topic/presenter.If it is a big conference, they are there to learn and have a limited amount of learning time.(Unless they all leave, of course, but that’s a whole other problem!)

  10. Reply

    I love your piece about where to start. That urge to open up Keynote/Powerpoint and “go” is real. I think it gives the presenter a feeling like they are getting somewhere. This feeling of getting closer to the end might calm some pre-presentation nerves, which may or may not be a good thing. My guess is that this feeling might lead a presenter to believe that they are done when in reality, the hard part – cutting back to only a couple words on each slide and finding captivating visuals – has just begun.

    My best thoughts and ideas typically come to me when I’m not sitting down with the intention to plan a specific presentation. Therefore, I’ve been moving away from planing with digital tools in the early stages (Apple Notes, Google Docs, planning in the presenter notes of Keynote, etc) to writing in a journal or on a bunch of blank pages in a jumbled sort of way. Since many of my best ideas come while driving, jogging or taking a shower, I often use the Voice Memos app on my phone to ensure that I don’t lose some of those ideas that pop in my mind when paper and pencil aren’t readily available.

    The only challenge I find is convincing myself that I’m better prepared than it might seem. Like Dan, I now get much closer to a presentation before my slide deck is finished and that can be a bit unsettling. Often times, conferences want slide decks for ignite sessions, etc. weeks prior and that can pose a challenge when you’re trying to get things hammered out well in advance to a talk.

    • Almost forgot! I wanted to share a really good read for upping your presentation game:

      Resonate by Nancy Duarte

      This book hits a lot of the pieces in Dan’s post, but also talks a lot about the “pulse line” (I believe it’s called) – talking about the way things are vs. the way you think things should be – which helps you sort of zoom out on your talk and keep people interested and engaged.

  11. Jamalee Stone

    April 22, 2017 - 9:28 am -
    Reply

    Dan,

    Thank you for another thought-provoking and inspiring blog post. I appreciate that you’ve taken the time to interview many of my mathematics “heroes” to supplement your post. I will share your ideas with my future math teachers on how to present in general. The ideas about the bins/buckets, the Google Doc to lay out one’s talk before immediately going to PowerPoint/Keynote/GoogleSlides are golden. Not to mention all of the replies with additional presenting resources. Keep promoting math education and learning!

  12. Reply

    First, I wish for a like button on many of these comments.
    Second, I’ve only done a few small presentations and usually only one or two people show up so I probably shouldn’t give any advice. Having said that though I will give my advice.

    Nice.

    When students make a slide presentation and turn in their first draft the two suggestions I have are to take all the words they wrote and put it into the speaker notes, that is what you will say. Second go and find pictures that show what you want to say, put those on the slides.
  13. Reply

    I enjoyed this so much when you presented it at NCTM and am giddy to see that you shared it all on your blog for progeny! I have a presentation to put together for next week and I am definitely going to try your method.

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