Handouts of slides and the right questions

Photo by tvol


I have been in the business of teaching with digital presentations for a few years now. Since my early days as an instructor in the Israeli Air-Force, when computers were emerging and we were trying to understand how to use this tool to enhance our teaching abilities.

And as long as this tool has been around, there was this debate about whether, as a teacher, you need to distribute your slides before the class, so people can use it to jot down notes while you talk, or after the class, so it won’t distract the students and allow them to look up ahead in your notes.

This is a question I have been grappling with for a long time now (I usually give everything away before class, but in a slightly different version). So, I was excited yesterday to read in the BPS digest blog about a new study trying to find an answer to this question in an organized research methodology. This is how the conclusions of the study are explained by the blog:

The findings provide preliminary evidence that lecturers should provide their students with handouts during the lecture. Regarding the more extensive note-taking that took place when handouts were held back until after a lecture, the researchers speculated that this was ‘unlikely to be a deep encoding task’, which would normally be expected to aid memory retention, and may instead have acted merely acted as a distraction.

‘The data reported here represent only a first step and do not resolve this issue,’ the researchers concluded. ‘In no case, however, did having the handouts during a lecture impair performance on the final tests. Even when there were no differences in final test performance, students still benefited in the sense that they reached the same level of learning with less work.

While I totally agree with Bob Sutton’s take on this that: “This is not an earth-shaking problem or issue, but I have been amazed to see how vehemently some faculty feel about this issue, so I am glad to see a little evidence”, it still left me wondering. Are we asking the right question? Isn’t this a simplistic way to see the world? Black or white. Yes or no. With handouts or without? Evidence is necessary, especially in a debate that borders on the emotional without any factual representation, but the question in my mind should be a little different.

The question should not be whether giving out handouts before class is good or not, the question should be why, when and how we should give out handouts. My experience (as a student) is that most handouts are a waste of paper; they usually don’t explain the material very well and are a waste in every sense. In many cases, instead of giving a handout of the slide with six pages, a simple word handout is much more effective. However, I have seen some professors preparing and handing out great slides, because their class is built-in a way that supports the use of the slide as handouts as well. Some of the best uses I have seen are those that use a different set of slides for the class (as a handout) and a different one for the presentation, so they don’t lose the element of surprise and keep the text on every slide to a minimum, but are still able to provide the class with concise and useful slides to take notes on.

I guess research on this issue will continue into the future, but that is a good thing. I also know that this type of quantitative research has to focus on a small question in order to pinpoint a specific issue. But we not all live in academic experience. And in many areas of life, asking the right question is an important skill.  This happens in many fields of life, personal issues, politics, and business. We tend to go into an issue and see it as a yes-no question. Should we or shouldn’t we. However, sometimes, the question is not yes-no but why, how and when.


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Is multimedia evil?

Photo by Helico


Jeff Brenman from Apollo Ideas writes about a debate around the use of multimedia presentations in the courtroom. He quotes Texas lawyer David Bissinger that in Brenman’s opinion makes “a compelling case for multimedia in the courtroom” in this recent article from Law.com:

A compelling case exists that using multimedia increases juror competence. At least three reasons should prompt trial lawyers to use, and trial judges to embrace, multimedia devices. First, scientific and other high-level learning depends upon visualization; the best advocates, like the best teachers, teach by using visual aids. Second, multimedia argument advances the ancient art of advocacy through storytelling. Third, the forces of technological innovation will put lawyers who fail to embrace these methods out of business

And I ask: What is so compelling about three reasons?

As a former lawyer and someone who has been using presentations for teaching and lecturing for more than a decade now, I am absolutely shocked by the level of the argument that supporters need to stoop to in order to justify what is obvious .

My question is why do we even need an argument, not to say these arguments?

Multimedia (or put more simply, presentation slides) is just a tool. A tool that helps drive a person message across in a more accurate, simpler and persuasive way. But they are not the presentation. The presentation is made by the person. Be it a teacher or a lawyer. And the presenter doing the presentation has many tools at his disposal. For example, his voice or the way he moves his hands. Would you consider not letting a lawyer in court use his voice or his hands? Of course not.  But people are suggesting and asking for justification to use multimedia. Why?

I know what you are thinking to yourself: “but people built these awful PowerPoint presentations. The damage they do with these presentations is horrible. People can’t do that kind of damage with their voice or hands. Multimedia is used for evil. Let’s eradicate evil!”. Ok, maybe I took that a step to far… But Brenman mentions a similar line of argument: “There are some who think presentations force lawyers to dumb down their content for the jury”. All of that is true (well, expect the eradicate evil part). And you know what, unfortunately it doesn’t only happen in the courtroom.

But it is not enough. Two things should be mentioned here. One, is that I have seen some people who use their voice in a monotonous way or present the idea in a boring, non-compelling (and some would say misleading) ways without using PowerPoint. Do we say that because some people are incompetent we should prevent presenting?

Second, the fact that we have a tool that could be used both in a good and bad way does not mean we should ban it because it has bad uses. Some say Google Earth was used to plan and coordinate the bombings in Mumbai a few years ago. Would we ban Google Earth because it could be used for evil? Almost every human invention and tool has the capacity to be used in the wrong ways. And the immediate reaction is to try to stop it. But the key to progress can never be preventing the future from happening. New tools will always emerge. Instead of fearing them and saying that they change the ways things used to be, we need to learn how to embrace them and see how they change the game.

Multimedia, just like a person’s voice is only a tool. But it is one hell of a tool. There are things you can show with it that even the most talented presenter cannot do alone. Like Seth Godin writes in one of his latest blog posts:

A car is not merely a faster horse

And email is not a faster fax. And online project management is not a bigger whiteboard. And Facebook is not an electronic rolodex.

Play a new game, not the older game but faster.

Should we stop using cars because people make horrifying accidents and use them for robberies?

Let’s not blame the tools. Let put the people who use them accountable for their use of the tools.


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Authenticity, Passion and Presentations


I was attending a webinar held by Ethos3 Communications today which was given by Scott Schwertly and titled: “Presenting Yourself, Your Business and Your Cause in 15 Minutes or Less”. I have been following Scott and Ethos3 work for a while now, so while I did not learn anything new, I enjoyed reinforcing some of the great principles they use to make amazing presentations for their clients. I especially like the unparalleled use of the concept and power of stories as the backbone of great presentations.

One thing Scott said in the seminar especially resonated with me:

“Presenting yourself is about finding your authentic voice”

I feel this statement is true in many levels. The most interesting of them is demonstrated in this quote from the book Elantris by Brandon Sanderson that I am currently reading:

He disobeyed all the rules of public speaking. He didn’t vary the loudness of his voice, nor did he look members of the audience in the eyes. He didn’t maintain a stately, upright posture to appear in control; instead he hopped across the podium energetically, gesturing wildly. His face was covered with sweat; his eyes were wide and hunting.

And they listened.

They listened more acutely than they to Hrathen. They followed Dilaf’s insane jumps with their eyes, transfixed by his very unorthodox motion… Dilaf’s passion worked like a catalyst, like a mold that spread uncontrollably once it found a dank place to grow. Soon the entire audience shared in his loathing, and they screamed along with his denunciations.

A while ago I encountered this retweet:

The public speaking biz is about risk aversion. Conference folks don’t want screw ups. Speakers need to deliver consistency!

And this was my reply:

Maybe public speaking biz is about risk aversion. But when you go in and break all the rules, they love it!

I believe in passion. I believe in both respecting and breaking the rules. More than everything I believe you need to be authentic. True to yourself . To the fire in your soul. To your audience. To your message. The rest is just props.


Are you worthy?

Photo by Seattle Municipal Archives


Dale Breckenridge Carnegie wrote in 1905 (!) the following paragraph in the introduction to his book, The Art of Public Speaking:

Training in public speaking is not a matter of externals – primarily; it is not a matter of imitation – fundamentally; it is not a matter of conformity to standards – at all.  Public speaking is public utterance, public issuance, of the man himself; therefore the first thing both in time and in importance is that the man should be and think and feel things that are worthy of being given forth.

Isn’t this something that should be always true? Yes, the externals – visuals, speaking tools, metaphors – are all important. However, in the end, it boils down to the question – is what I am saying worthy? When you next go to give a presentation – ask yourself – what do I have to say? And I know what you are going to tell me. “I am going to talk about something boring and banal; there is nothing for me to ‘say’ in it”. And my answer –if there isn’t don’t talk.

If you can’t find the passion inside, the understanding of how you are making a difference, some kind of difference, small as it may be, in somebody’s life by giving this next presentation, don’t present. The title of Carnegie’s books includes the word art – and I would like to think of it as Art in the way Seth Godin thinks about Art in his new book Linchpin. There are many painters but there are only a limited number of artists who paint. There are many speakers, but there are only a limited number of people who deal in the Art of public speaking.

I will take this idea one step further. If you are a manager, this applies to your everyday work life too. When you wake up tomorrow morning and go to your office, what kind of mind set do you bring with you to the office? Are you doing things that are worthy? Do you feel that you have something to give, something of importance, that you are changing your employees’ lives?  What kind of passion do you bring to your partnership with them? Dan Pink tells us to ask ourselves two questions every morning. I think there is only one. Are you worthy?


A good reminder


Photo by kkimpel

I have been working on a very complicated presentation that I am planning to give to my AGSM MBA cohort. I already put many hours in preparing it and thinking about it and I felt I had it almost fully prepared. But, I felt something was missing. So, I posted on my blog (not this, the other one), and asked my readers for some help.

I was astounded by the amount of responses I got (as comments on the post, to my e-mail and in Facebook). But one of the responses really took me off guard. A good friend of mine wrote that the most important thing I should do is tell a personal story. So simple, so true.

I thought to myself – how come I haven’t thought about it? I read blogs about presentations all the time. They talk about the importance of stories constantly. I help people with presentations.  This would probably have been my first advice to anyone. But I didn’t think about it.

Three conclusions from this story:

  1. It is always a good idea to try and learn. Even if you think you know everything already. Even if you are the expert. Sometimes you just need the reminder. Sometime it something that is so clear and obvious to you, that you just forget about it.
  2. The power of social networks, even one as small as mine, should not be ignored. It is so easy to ask for help today, we just don’t use it enough. Use it. Throw a cry for help out there. Let’s see what happens.
  3. If you are going to prepare a presentation, no matter in what forum and on what subject, putting a personal story is a good idea. If you have no personal story, just use a story.


Surprise with your presentation, even using technology


Umair Haque at BRITE ’09 conference from BRITE Conference on Vimeo.

I was watching this lecture by Umair Haque from the Brite Conference. It is a very interesting lecture where Haque claims that the creativity of the past is not good enough for the new economy and the new world. This is the second time this week I see an attack on the notion of creativity as we know it (link in Hebrew). I will not attempt to explain what Haque is saying because I am not sure I totally understand it (I really liked some of the examples and really disagree with some others). I will let you see and decide for yourselves. What I want to talk about is the way Haque gives his presentation.

Haque is not a very articulative presenter. The flow of the speech is not consistent. He does not capture the audience with good use of voice, movement or structure. But, one thing stood out -the visual aid he is using. Haque is not using regular PowerPoint presentation slides. Instead, he is using some kind of big flash or java sheet that allows him to “sail” (there is no other word I can think of to describe it) between the different points, magnifying on one point for a second and then moving to another. I never seen anything like it used in a presentation. The constant movement across this sheet, which represents linkage of different ideas, creates not only great repetition of the main ideas but a great sense of understanding of the connections between them.

This got me thinking. My training in presentations comes from the education background. I learned how to speak, present and structure according to the frameworks of education. I find myself struggling many times adapting this “bias” I have when I tried giving different kinds of presentations. When you teach, a lot of your concentration should go to structure and keeping consistency. You don’t use differences and surprises a lot, only when trying to make certain points. In other types of presentations, especially one time presentations, being different, surprising and inconsistent is a great and important tool that should be used throughout the presentation.

Haque’s presentation captivated me even though his regular public speaking skills were not remarkable. Because he used a new and different technological tool. That takes courage, but that also made him special, and made me pay attention closely. This shows that you don’t have to be a great speaker. You can use technology smartly in order to amplify your message. I hope to see more and more new tools that will allow us to create new visual aids that help improve our presentations.




Photo by Ilan Sharif

I just finished reading a very interesting book called “Iconoclast” (read more about the term iconoclasm), by Gregory Berns. The book describes what is unique about people who do things that others say can’t be done. By using case studies of remarkable people from all fields of society, sports to business, science and space flight  to human rights, and combining it with new research about the way the brain works, Berns makes a compelling argument about what makes these people so unique. This basic theory is that iconoclast can be distinguished by three traits: a perceptual system that allows him to see differently from other people, the ability to conquer fear of the unknown and social intelligence to sell ideas to other people.

As usual, a few thought about this book:

1. I think tis books amplifies two messages I deal a lot with here in this blog. The first one is the importance of the comparative advantage and use of the uniqueness of strengths. As it turns out, even those people who have one of the traits of an iconoclast don’t hold all three of them. This means, that they need to corporate. They need to find someone who can complete what they lack in order to do things that can’t be done. This means that one of the most important things you can do is concentrate on your strengths and find someone else to take care of your weaknesses.

2. The second one is the importance of leadership. I already mentioned that I strongly believe that the most important role of a leader is, as Markus Buckingham describes it, to create a clear picture of the future. Because most people are afraid of the future and afraid of the unknown. The people who succussed in doing things that other thought were impossible, were not deterred by the uncertainty the future holds. They managed to overcome their fear. As a leader, your role is to help people do just that. To complete the picture, check out item number one. Maybe your ability to as a leader to make the future less frightening will be just what others need in order to bring their iconoclast ability of perception to reality.

3. One of the biggest problems iconoclast face is the ability to persuade others of their ideas. We all know this. Great inventions and discoveries take a long time to come about, many times because the guy who thought about them just has to wait for the entire current community to die or leave. In the book, Berns says that an iconoclast has two options. Either try to persuade the early adopters, which means you have to find the right way to reach them, or make your idea more compatible with present ideas. This is a known trick in presentations – if you are having a hard time explaining something new, use something old. If any of you ever saw the TV show “Numbers” you recognize the great use of everyday concepts to explain complicated mathematical ideas. This is just the same. It is what the authors of “Made to stick” call: the curse of knowledge. Your own knowledge does not allow you to see how other people who don’t know what you know think. When you are presenting something, think what your audience already knows and use that concept to explain yours.

4. Finally, reading about so many people who took the current reality and just smashed it, is inspiring. These people disregarded what everybody said and changed most of our lives. Each and every one of you can do that every day. It is simple. Just like Tim Berners Lee says in his TED talk: it is time for you to become the sort of person who just does things which will be good if everybody else did them.

5. Even if you don’t do anything ground breaking, the ride a good enough reason.