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?


You don’t have to be theatrical to make a point

Every time I download a talk from www.ted.com I say to myself: “I bet this one will not inspire me or just blow me away”. And almost every time, I am wrong. My expectations keep becoming higher and higher, and still, I am not disappointed. This talk by Juan Enriquez is one of the best I have seen in TED, and that, as you know very well, is a very hard title to claim.

I will let you enjoy the talk as it is, because I am afraid that discussing it, might belittle it. I do, however, want to take the less obvious path and try to learn something about presentation skills from this talk.

A few weeks ago I wrote here that there is no “one right way” to give a presentation. Enriquez, in this talk, violates many of the most important rules of presentations. He is monotonic, he does not use his voice to confer his message and generally he transmits a feeling of boredom. His closing is lacking, both in rigour and in connection to the beginning of the speech. And still, I think his point is well taken. Which means, that you don’t have to magnificently control all the skills of “public speaking” in order to give a great presentation.

So what makes his talk so great? You would not believe it. The PowerPoint presentation. I know. We are used to the concept of “Death by PowerPoint” and when we imagine PowerPoint presentations we think of boring bullet lists and presenters who insist on reading to us what is written on the slide.

And then you look at talks like this and you understand the intensity and vigour that the right use of PowerPoint can instil into our presentations.

A few pointers:

  • 1. Notice that Enriquez uses words scarcely in his slides. Slides are not there to be an outline of the lecture. They are supposed to amplify the speaker’s message. Especially note the fact that many times, he shows words in the slide, but does not read them at all. The audience can read. Don’t insult them by reading to them.
  • 2. Use of pictures. Enriquez uses pictures that carry a message. Pictures that surprise. Picture that magnify the message. Many times they are funny (which is always a good thing), but they are always relevant.
  • 3. Number of slides. I know that there are some experts who talk about the number of slides you need to put in a presentation or limit it in time. I personally don’t believe there is a right or wrong number or time (although I like the ted 20 minutes limit). In Enriquez talk we see a lot of slides that accompany the entire presentation and make each point more understandable. I think this keeps the crowd alert and uses both side of their brains. On the other hand, because there a lot of slides, we get one message per slide, thus, it is not to overwhelming or includes too much information to be absorbed.

A lot to learn!


The story of elderly ladies on the bus


Photo by ellecteric

I want our soldiers to stand up in order to make lace for elderly woman on the bus“.

When you think about it, standing up for elderly woman on a bus is a very polite behaviour. But the quoted sentence above, for me, holds much more than just good manners. When I was a junior commander of the operators of communication course in the Israeli Air-Force, our officer repeated it again and again.

What he tried to explain to our team was that he rather have us spend time on education and discipline than on teaching the soldiers the professional parts of the course. This was counter intuitive. Our task was to train Operators of communication course. But for him, making them better soldiers and persons was more important.

Today, I was reminded of this statement, while I was reading the book “Made to stick“.  Like with other management books I wrote about, this book does not need my promotion. So, in addition to recommending it, I will share a number of my thoughts:

  1. I think the most important message of the book deals with trying to find the core value of your message and a memorable way to present it. The story about my commander is a great one. I often talk about it in workshops I give about leadership. One of the challenges mangers face is how to create a message that will allow his team to make decisions when he is not around. When my officer was not around, we could have easily known what his opinion would be. Do you know what your manager wants? Does your team know what you want? Most people are not sure what the goal of their department or company is. As Lewis Carroll Said: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there”. Don’t be surprised if you or your team decide to go onto the wrong road. There is a great need for more coherence regarding the core values.  If you don’t believe me, believe the CEO of the Coca-Cola company, Muhtar Kent. A Knowledge@Wharton article says: “He explained that his first priority upon assuming the helm at Coca-Cola — based upon what he had witnessed in other leaders in business and in government over the previous 35 years — has been to develop a new broad strategic vision for the Coca-Cola brand. Kent said the leaders he is striving to emulate ‘had the ability to create a clear and compelling vision and they had the ability to articulate and communicate it in a simple way’
  2. When you chose your core values, it is important to stick to them, especially when it comes to intuition. Not only acting against your core values hurts you and your message. The trick is, sometimes, sticking to the core values means you need not to act in ways that seem to be right. In my example, it was passing on more study time for more discipline routine, even if it meant lesser grades for our soldiers. In the book, the writers give an example of southwest airlines, which decided to be “the cheapest airline company in America”. Surveys showed that passengers want the company to serve chicken salad in their flights instead of the usual peanuts. The manager of the company, stuck to his core values, and asked: “will this make us the cheapest airline company in America?”. The answer was off course negative. You read a lot about adjusting your service to the needs of the customers. The costumer is, after all, always right. Well, sometimes, the costumer is wrong. Many times, the right thing to do is to act according to your core values.
  3. Two great concepts for those of us that deal with education and presentations. The power of a good story and the importance of being concrete and tangible. Once I did not believe in the power of stories in classes or presentations. I changed my mind. It happened after I realized that the stories are what I always remember best when I attend a presentation. Think about the last presentation you attended. Try to remember what it was about? Do you remember a story told there? You probably did. A story makes what you talk about to be tangible. So many times you see a lecturer talking about something without explaining what has does that have to do with listeners. Remember, if the lecture is about them, like everybody says, you need to explain to them why what you are talking about is important to them. The best way to do it is to talk about real life consequences of what you talk about. There always are.


Never start with the slides

Today I started building a new presentation. It is an idea that has been running in my head for a pretty long time. This one is different from other presentations I built till today, because I am not quite sure I will even give it. I am trying to see if I can create something of value. I have a few ideas who to give it to, but it is still vague. Currently I am just creating it for me, to help me think about the subject, hoping it will lead to something great.

I don’t know about you, but when I think of a presentation the first thing that pops into my mind is the slides. I can see many of the slides and what will be on them – the pictures, what I will say with the slide, how it will be revealed. This makes it very tempting for me to just start of by building the slides. This something I try not do. Granted, conveying ideas using pictures is sometimes very powerful. But you can jot down the idea of the slide without building the slide itself (perhaps on a back of a napkin, also see here). Instead, I write down the ideas for the slides and start writing the actual words I will use when i give the presentation. The actual speech itself. Only when I am sure about the main theme, the story, the idea I want to convey, I move to the slides. Sometimes, when I start building the slides I will go back and improve the words, but I always start with words first.

This process helps me remember something very important about using slides. The slides are not the presentation. I am. The idea is. The story is. The words I will say will be. The slides are just a tool. You can compare it to using humor. Humor is great tool for giving great presentations. When used in the correct way, it can turn a bad speech into a great one. But it is not a must. You give a wonderful and engaging presentation without using any humor at all. The same goes to slides usage. Slides can help you convey your idea visually. But first you need an idea. The slides can’t talk for you (and no, reading them out loud does not count). You don’t go writing your presentation around a joke. You don’t go writing your presentation around the slides.


Remarkable? Depressing. Stay positive!

Today, I saw this lecture by Seth Godin. Now doubt, it is worth you’re 20 minutes.

 A few after thoughts:

1. I don’t argue with what Seth is saying, but even he has to admit that it is, after all, a little depressing. If very good is very bad, because the only way to create something valuable is to be remarkable, it sets a very high standard. Now I understand better, why when I got 98 in a test my father always asked me two questions: (a) Why did you lose 2 points? (b) How much did the other people in the class got? Seth talks about business but he says that this is true to many other areas in life. Again, that is a depressing thought. Honestly, how many things have you done in your life you can say are remarkable? I know that I haven’t than many. But the important thing is how do you feel about the remarkable things you did do… still there is optimism hidden somewhere.

2. A few days ago I wrote here about a post by Seth regarding PowerPoint presentations and how to make them remarkable. One of his points was that a presentation should not be more than 10 minutes long. I did not agree with it, Lisa Braithwaite of speak schmeak even wrote a post about it explaining why in her eyes, you should not put a time limit on presentations. In this lecture, Seth shows why this rule can not even be considered a guide line. His lecture is more than twice his recommended time. It is still quite remarkable.

3. This lecture shows us once again, that preparation, passion, originality and humor are more important to a presentation than good design or other exaggerated pyrotechnics.


Not to use PowerPoint and the taking of notes during a presentation

Seth Godin writes today an interesting piece about: “Nine steps to PowerPoint magic“. In it, he gives nine tips about how to use PowerPoint to deliver great presentations. I want to talk about 2 of these tips, one I agree with very much, and the second, I am not quite sure about.

The first and most important tip Godin gives is not to use PowerPoint at all. In his words:

Don’t use Powerpoint at all. Most of the time, it’s not necessary. It’s underkill. Powerpoint distracts you from what you really need to do… look people in the eye, tell a story, tell the truth. Do it in your own words, without artifice and with clarity. There are times Powerpoint is helpful, but choose them carefully.

Today, you can see many organizations that have fallen in love with the format of a PowerPoint presentation. There are some organizations in which it is expected (or worse – mandatory) to deliver information using Powerpoint. Many organizations created templates and rules about how to use this instrument which have nothing to do with giving a good presentation. PowerPoint usage has become a standard. Usually a bad one.

The problem with PowerPoint is that it is a tool that does not always fit the circumstances. Talking to an audience differs depending on the circumstances. Giving an inspirational speech about an idea and teaching something is not the same. Talking to 100 people is not the same as talking to 3 people. Not mentioning the differences in subject matter.

I remember when PowerPoint was starting to be used for giving classes in the one of the schools of the Israeli Air force where I was serving (yes, near the end of the last millennium). The commander of the unit was so impressed with intertwining new technology into the curriculum that he ordered every department in the unit to take at least three classes and build a PowerPoint presentation for them. I was talking to the officer in charge of guidance development and he told me this was an erroneous order, because PowerPoint should be used only if it can contribute to the class and improving it. It should not be a default setting.

I think it can be explained very easily if you think about a megaphone. Sometimes, a megaphone helps in making the crowd hear you and understand you. It is a great tool, if you are standing outside and talking to a large crowd. But if you are in a small room trying to talk to a small number of people, it would just seem ridiculous. The same is true with PowerPoint. Sometimes, it just makes you seem ridiculous.

If PowerPoint can contribute to your message or there is something visual you need to show your audience, use it, other wise you should think twice about using it. If you chose to use it, think carefully how to do it. PowerPoint can be used in different manners not only in the standard format we a used to seeing. For example, see here for using PowerPoint for presentations in small groups.

In the last weeks I have seen two great presentations that did not use PowerPoint at all. They did not need it. One is Malcolm Gladwell’s speech “Genius: 2012“. The second is Sir Ken Robinson’s speech “Do schools kill creativity?

The second tip Godin talks about deals with note taking by the audience:

Too breathtaking to take notes. If people are liveblogging, twittering or writing down what you’re saying, I wonder if your presentation is everything it could be. After all, you could have saved everyone the trouble and just blogged it/note-taken it for them, right? We’ve been trained since youth to replace paying attention with taking notes. That’s a shame. Your actions should demand attention (hint: bullets demand note-taking. The minute you put bullets on the screen, you are announcing, “write this down, but don’t really pay attention now.”) People don’t take notes when they go to the opera.

Not that I have a problem with it, but I think Godin sets the bar a little high this time.

First, even if you are the best presenter in the world and have the most compelling message, there will still be some fluctuations in your presentation. And it is Ok that people write down things while during these fluctuations. Most people can write an idea down and continue to listen at the same time.

Second, Godin claims that a presentation should not be longer than 10 minutes. I am not sure that is always possible. But even in a 10 minutes presentation, the important idea is much shorter and usually repeats it self a number of times, because we all know the importance of repeation in presentations. The second time the same idea is presented – don’t you want your audience to write it down.

Third, I know that for me personally, when I feel like I have something to write down, it means the presentation is interesting and contributes to me. In the two aforementioned presentations I watched, I felt the urge to write some of the ideas down for later use during the speech.

Fourth, and more importantly, as Godin himself says – “We’ve been trained since youth to replace paying attention with taking notes. That’s a shame” – Maybe it is a shame. But that is the way people work – when you are presenting you should take that into notice. The all point of presenting is to create value for the listeners. I prefer they write own my main idea and remember it than having their full attention all the time and than having them forget my message afterwards because for some people the opposite of forgetting is writing.