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.)
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.
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 —Â the same talk —Â before you present at the national conference.
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.