Lecturers as Presenters? 5/10


For three years Grant Thornton the accountancy firm has booked us to run our Powerful Presentation Skills workshop for its summer intake of interns. This year there are fifty really bright, sparky and enthusiastic interns from universities across the UK (the firm’s recruiters are to be congratulated, we were really impressed with each and every one of the students we met.)

A couple of common (and I would suggest, worrying) themes are emerging. Firstly, that at school, students are often asked to present using PowerPoint. They are instructed to use slides that contain “words only ” (“no pictures please”) and that those words should be “black text on white background.” Like a man breaking wind in a lift, this is wrong on so many levels! It transpires that the reasoning behind this is that the presentation will ultimately form part of  their “exam assessment” and, therefore, a transcript is needed. Great for the examiner – not so great for the audience watching the presentation!

Good place for a nap!

As much as anything, projecting a white background at an audience for long periods can cause photokeratitis (or snow-blindness).  So, imagine what might happen if students have to watch an hour or two of back-to-back presentations given by their fellow pupils… the symptoms include pain, redness, swollen eyelids,headaches, halos around lights, hazy vision and in extreme cases temporary loss of vision. These symptoms may not appear for 6-12 hours. (A warning here then for companies that hold conferences and project bright screens at audiences in darkened rooms all day!)

Words do not make for good “visual aids” they are not visual and don’t necessarily aid the audience’s understanding or recall. No wonder PowerPoint gets misused when school students are taught to use it in this way.

But what worries me even more is the second theme that has emerged in our time training university students: those of their lecturers that use PowerPoint mostly do the same thing; fill up their slides with words.

Research at The University of South Wales showed that whilst we are happy to process either the written or the spoken word – we’re not good at doing both at the same time. Therefore, we’ll tune out one or the other. If the lecturer’s any good and there are too many words – we’ll tune out the slides (the slides are pointless!) If the speaker directs us to read them (usually by turning their back on us and reading them out loud (and boy, don’t you just hate that) then the speaker is tuned out!

But it’s not just many lecturers’ propensity to use PowerPoint as an auto-cue that worries us. On seeing our training the interns are telling us that their lecturers are committing other cardinal sins, but in particular:

Essential reading

Not giving an overview or review of their lecture. Stavros Sophocles, one of the famous Greek Orators, intimated that if you want an audience to remember what you’ve said to them (surely one of the key points to giving a lecture) that you should, “Tell the audience what you’re going to tell them, tell the and then tell them what you told them.” Apparently this doesn’t happen terribly often. It’s a fundamental that Tony Buzan covers in his brilliant books on learning and in particular in “Use your Head“. I think that anyone involved in learning (pupils and students too), lecturing or teaching should read this book.

BoredomOther crimes cited include (but not limited to): reading from notes or books for extended period of time; not engaging with the audience; staying behind a lectern; distracting fidgets; mumbling; erming and erring, not giving eye-contact and so on. No wonder then students often resort to passing notes to each other, twittering during lectures and playing “DISTRACTION!” an interactive game played on the internet by students against fellow classmates during their boring lecture classes. The DISTRACTION! website says the game, similar to Bingo, is used as a way to stay occupied and have fun during class. Students have to watch out for events such as “Lecturer gets ahead of himself on PowerPoint,” “Student asleep,” “Projector doesn’t work,” “Lecturer throws chalk” etc.

Invariably when we collect in our feedback forms in at the end of our course a common comment is, “Our lecturers could do with coming on this course!” You’d think that ,surely, a pre-requisite of allowing anyone to teach would be for them to undergo some basic presentation skills training – apparently not.

Score for presenting

Of course, we did hear of the rare inspirational lecturers who were brilliant at engaging with their audience, who used anecdotes and stories to bring alive their lectures, who did use PowerPoint to show great images and interesting graphs & charts, and who did introduce and conclude their lectures well. It’s just a shame it’s not the standard!

Asking our students to score their lecturers against our course content comes up with a score of 5/10. Must do better.


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6 Responses to “Lecturers as Presenters? 5/10”

  1. Tweets that mention Lecturers as Presenters? 5/10 « New Tricks Training’s Old Dog Blog -- Topsy.com Says:

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  3. Albert Menne Says:

    Very informative post and I kind of agree with you (except on three points) on what you said. Keep the good work going. Your writing style is very good and I was able to understand the post clearly even though English is my second language. PS: I have already subscribed to your blog’s RSS feed.

  4. Mike Samuels Says:

    In a past life I trained medical students in presentation skills – all the work I did telling them to keep slides simple but interesting and most definitely not to read from them was wasted after the first lecture by the academic staff who defiantly proceeded to do everything I told the students not to do.

    Whenever I attend talks now I find it incredible how badly the majority of senior management and academics are at delivering their subject.

    Educating the educators is a frustration and yes it gives PowerPoint a bad name too

    • Ken Norman Says:

      Hi Mike
      Thanks for your comment. There’s plenty of research out there that show that projecting words at an audience is a waste of time. You’d think an academic would pay attention to what other academics had to say on the matter!

  5. David Burn Says:


    Thoughtful, excellently presented and pertinent. As Janice used to say “I’ll give it foive”.

    I’ve never lectured but have used the dreaded PP to euthanasic effect in market research de-briefs. But, if I can drift away from your central theme a little, I have some slightly-related thoughts from ad campaigns that I used to present to clients. Generally the creatives would work up their ideas using magic markers and hand-lettered text (AKA greeking in) and mount the mould-breaking concepts on thick board with a shiny acetate film over the lot. Looked great during the rehearsal but, in the client’s boardroom it was impossible not to blind at least one key decision-maker with the acetate. And the whole effect often got in the way of the creativity. It was just too polished but still looked like a mock-up. However there was room for people to contribute before the ideas went to photography, film or illustration.

    Of course the digital age just made it worse. Those lurid layouts became perfect; the type was complete, the images were photo-shopped to within an inch and there were always 6 variants showing different treatments. In effect the client was being shown a take-it-or-leave-it concept with no room for discussion, tweaking or even good old-fashioned meddling. And all because the ‘layout’ looked so finished and perfect that there was no longer any permission for people to contribute to the creative process.

    So the really smart creatives went back to magic markers and layout pads, dashing off the essence of the creative concept but leaving the detail for later. Brilliant. Clients had the opportunity to participate in the process (well, they thought they had) by offering suggestions to improve those apparently hasty scribbles. The result was that the best ideas got approved, often with only minimal client inteference.

    So perhaps the key word in all that is ‘permission’. If you want your audience to get involved in the learning process perhaps you must do the teaching in a way that gives them permission to participate. Perhaps Ken’s 40 second butterfly is a good example of that.

    The platform is now yours.


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