As I prepared for a presentation on presentations, I asked fourteen of my favorite math education presenters, “What is your best advice for preparing and delivering a presentation?” Here is their advice, edited for brevity and sequenced for story.
Michael Serra, author of Discovering Geometry:
Watch others and take note of what you want to see and do not want to see in your presentation.
Matt Larson, President of NCTM:
Whose style do you like and want to emulate? You can’t be someone else but what elements from other presenters can you make your own and integrate into your own style.
Patrick Callahan, Callahan Consulting:
I prepare the talk that I would like to see. I like to be surprised and challenged. I don’t like things tied up in a neat bow. I like talks that I have to keep thinking about.
Jo Boaler, author of Mathematical Mindsets:
Relax! Find some space to think. We now know that there are different modes of thinking and that speed and pressure block creative and innovative thoughts. I always like to plan talks when I feel like I have some good time to think expansively and creatively. I don’t do it in in-between moments, I do it when I have a good block of time and I feel as though I can think deeply and well.
Preparing a talk is like writing a book or a paper – think through the key ideas. How do they flow to and from each other? Don’t overwhelm your audience with too many ideas. Keep them all connected.
Ideas come at weird times – intentionally jot down every idea as it comes to you. I tend to have Post-its on my nightstand, in my kitchen, on my teacher desk, on my laptop (yes, on the flat spots to the left and right of my trackpad). I transfer these to a Google Doc, giving myself permission to brainstorm freely. Not every Post-it will make it to the final talk. That’s okay.
A good presentation is like a good classroom lesson – it is based on extensive planning and preparation. I have been working on the “versions” of my annual talk since last August. I have literally spent hundreds of hours doing research, putting together hundreds of “potential” slides, double checking citations, messing with the order, eliminating slides, etc.
Tracy Zager, author of Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You’d Had:
Story first, slides later. The most important thing is to plan the storyline of the talk first. Weekend Language is great on this, as is the one-minute video you made a few years ago. Both helped me break the habit of how we were all taught to start preparing your presentation by picking a theme for slide one in PowerPoint. Instead, I start with my big idea. Every talk needs to have a central big idea, and I spend a lot of time clarifying that idea before I get anywhere close to Keynote.
Elham Kazemi, author of Intentional Talk:
Don’t just build a talk by cutting and pasting slides together. Build the experience and then the slides.
Fawn Nguyen, middle school math teacher and awesome blogger:
A good image is better than text. For example, I have a picture of Robert Kaplinsky hiding his face under his [shameful] UCLA sweatshirt. That picture is more powerful than a slide that reads “The Bruins are getting pummeled on their own turf by the Oregon Ducks.”
I try to find a place to “test drive” the presentation, perhaps at a smaller conference. In some cases, I’ve simply given the presentation to 3-5 people in a small room.
Jose Vilson, author of This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education:
Preparation is really similar to the classroom. Eat breakfast. Go through normal routines. Do a few vocal exercises to get your vocals right. Make sure you’re just full enough and that you haven’t had too much to drink.
Create contingency plans. What if the wifi doesn’t work? Be prepared for that. It’s frustratingly common. If you’re playing videos and they’re embedded in your slides, also open the files themselves and minimize them. Sometimes they don’t play nicely and you need to find the originals quickly. (I learned that one the hard way.) What if you’re running long? What will you cut? What if you’re running short? Where can you go deeper? What if the mic sucks and you’re tethered to the lectern area by a wire? That’s my least favorite scenario. If the room is small enough in that situation, I toss the mic in a heartbeat, use my teacher voice, and get out in the crowd.
Arrive early and greet people that took the time to come to your talk. learn as much as you can about whose in the room in the 10-15 minutes before the talk begins. Use that knowledge during the talk.
We attempt to make a personal connection with participants by going through the room and meeting people prior to the presentation.
Cathy Humphreys, author of Making Number Talks Matter:
Most of us get nervous before a large talk, and once early on when I was in that state a mentor said to me something like, “This talk is not about you. You aren’t the point. It’s the ideas you are sharing that matter.”
Delivery is about reading the audience and being flexible. You can tell when the room is with you and when it isn’t. Based on that, it’s important to be flexible: skip slides, slow down, speed up, give time for folks to turn and talk, ask questions.
Be enthusiastic. Your audience needs to feel that love you have for what you are presenting. Know your stuff but don’t be a know it all.
I never like to talk for more than 15 minutes without asking people to watch a video, do a maths task, or discuss with each other.
Your first presentation will probably not be to hundreds of listeners but to a small group of participants. So make sure they are participating and not just listening.
If you’re doing PowerPoint, you’re doing something more image-based, but the images should remind you of what you’re saying to your audience.
Marilyn Burns, founder Math Solutions:
I use PowerPoint slides as guides for my session, to trigger my thoughts and keep me on course. I use the notes section to remind myself about what I was planning to say. I try to avoid presenting lots of information to be read, and I work hard to avoid ever reading what’s on a slide. If there’s something for people to read, I stop talking and give them time.
Barb Dougherty & Karen Karp:
Tell stories, including those that show your own foibles along the way. For example, with our 13 Rules That Expire, we share that we know these rules because at one time we taught them!
Try and tell a connected story, talk about the personal connections to you.
Steve Leinwand, author of Accessible Mathematics:
A good talk or presentation is like a good lesson. You start with classroom action and later summarize the purpose of those tasks or activities. In other words, I think that a good presentation models good instruction
If possible, do just what you do in a classroom, where you listen in on conversations and then ask those people to share out in the larger crowd when you come back together. Those organic moments are to be treasured.
Go along with an unintended diversion.
Think about how you can be “inspiring” or have a “call to action” at the end. I’ve attended this presentation, now what?
Is there a take-away message or a call-to-action from your talk?
Great, right? Test all of this and keep what’s good for you. It’s time to propose your session. Everyone: your NCTM proposals are due May 1. Californians: your proposals (North, South) are due the same date. Share what your ideas and questions.