Presentation Advice from 14 of My Favorite Presenters

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.

Cathy Yenca, Apple Distinguished Educator and awesome edtech blogger:

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.

Matt Larson:

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.”

Matt Larson:

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.

Tracy Zager:

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.

Elham Kazemi:

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.

Barb Dougherty & Karen Karp, authors, editors, and co-presenters:

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.”

Patrick Callahan:

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.

Michael Serra:

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.

Jo Boaler:

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.

Michael Serra:

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.

Jose Vilson:

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!

Jo Boaler:

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

Tracy Zager:

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.

Fawn Nguyen:

Go along with an unintended diversion.

Matt Larson:

Think about how you can be “inspiring” or have a “call to action” at the end. I’ve attended this presentation, now what?

Fawn Nguyen:

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.

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


  1. I recall talking to Robert Kaplinsky about some of the powerful talks we saw at NCTM 2016. We observed that some of the most memorable ones began with a relevant analogy or metaphor, and then ran with it as far as it would go. We had just seen Jason Zimba invoke a book about household decluttering and organizing to describe the process of writing the CCSS, and (probably not by coincidence) I still remember that talk almost point-by-point. Then Robert himself gave a compelling talk about educator leadership and empowerment by drawing upon MLK and Kim Jong Un. In other words, that advice has stayed with me.

    • Daniel Torres-Rangel

      April 22, 2017 - 9:37 am -

      In the book, “The ABCs of How We Learn,” (Schwartz) the A is for analogy. The “A” chapter talks about the benefits (and drawbacks) of using analogies. They can certainly be a powerful tool for instruction and presentation if used in the right way. So, maybe this falls under the advice from Steve Leinwand above who says, “a good presentation models good instruction.” When I read the advice from others above (incorporating what you know about your audience into the presentation, making sure ideas are connected, don’t overwhelm the audience, have a back up plan…), these are just aspects of good instruction. So, I wonder…what does the venn diagram of “good presentation” and “good instruction” look like? If many of the ideas in this post would fall in the middle, what lies independently in each circle?

  2. As an eager learner I attend the conference with a goal of learning new or different presentations, teaching methods, coaching insights and unintentional learning. San Antonio delivered, but left my suitcase part empty. Most years I learn handful of goodies to share when I get back, this year I only had the opportunity to takeaway two practices.
    Perhaps I should learn how to calculate probability of selecting 15 highly productive sessions out of 760 sessions offered. Less than 2%
    Sessions I hit the jackpot were Shadow Con, Math forum and Dan Meyer!
    Will go to Washington for more.

    • Thanks for stopping by our sessions, Ali.

      I think you illustrate the need for some kind of Yelp for presenters. I mean, no one wants to give anyone a bad review, much less a public one, but these events are so expensive. We need to go into presentations with some reason to expect they’ll return the investment.

  3. Dawn Hoyt Kidd

    April 22, 2017 - 6:43 am -

    This is an excellent list – I will definitely take several of these suggestions for my future presentations both in and out of the classroom.

  4. Fair question.

    If the participants don’t do some math – is it really a math education presentation?
    • Yeah, fair. My guess is “no, it isn’t” but it depends on what you mean by “do some math.” At what depth? For how long?

  5. Dan, thank you (x a million) for putting together these two posts re: presenting! I’ve been doing some thinking about my first presentation that I will be giving at NCTM. And since I’m used to attending PCMI and TMC where many of the presentations are more like intimate interactive workshop-presentation hybrids, I’m grappling with the idea of a lecture-style presentation in a room that has all chairs fixed and looking forward and no tables.

    Actual lol.

    I think part of me freaking out about this is that I’m so not used to lecturing in my teaching anymore that the idea that I’ll be doing exactly the opposite of what I believe in makes me cringe. Like those PDs where someone talks at you about how to differentiate with students, but the talk is totally undifferentiated for the audience. I don’t want to be that person! I want to practice what I preach!

    So I am wondering how you think about that? I’m wondering how one makes a presentation in an environment like that *interactive*? What are ways to get the audience involved, and know they’re involved/engaged? The strategies I can think of are:

    *talk to a neighbor
    *work on a posed problem at your seat
    *if there is cell service and/or wifi, use one of those polling sites
    *have someone from the audience publicly share their thoughts on a posed question
    and… that’s it.

    I’m having trouble envisioning moments of engagement that involve something other than just listening to me and my co-speaker. So here are a few questions that I’d love help with (from you, or anyone else) if you think you have something to offer:

    1. What are other strategies to get an audience member involved/engaged during the session?
    2. Getting audience members involved is one way to “break up a talk” (so it isn’t 60 minutes of yammering). But what are other ways? I can only think of “show a video”!

    I’ve rewritten this comment a few times, because it’s getting me to think more as I try to figure out what exactly I’m struggling with. And I think maybe I need to recognize that giving a 60 minute talk is something entirely different than planning a class. Yes, I’ll use *some* of the same skills, but they are fundamentally different beasts.


    • Big questions. Certainly, if you don’t think people learn from lecture then “testifying” here means you can’t lecture. (That isn’t one of my convictions, but I think I understand where it comes from.)

      You highlight more than enough interludes in your comment to get your group through an hour of interesting work and thinking. I also wouldn’t underestimate the power of smaller moments of audience reflection, the kind that you don’t even signal by saying, “Now turn and talk,” the kind you instigate by dropping your voice for a second, or by looking at an artifact and modeling your own questions.

      The accumulation of those big and small moments, plus some introduction, analysis, and conclusion from the presenter, describes many of my favorite talks.

    • Thanks Dan! I think just writing my comment to you, articulating my scrambled brain, was helpful. And your reply was useful, and gave me some things to think about moving forward. Bring the audience along on my own thought process – as I’m thinking aloud, they’re thinking inside (if done well). You’re so kind to take the time to respond!

  6. These are fantastic ideas to keep in mind. Thank you for putting this together, Dan.
    I see some threads of ideas that I can keep in mind:
    Connections ( both personal and in the content, Engagement and Flexibility!