You stand in the front looking out at glazed-over eyes. Behind you, your PowerPoint slides. You are an instructor in a big auditorium or a boss at a meeting. Perhaps the eyes before you are not fogged at all, but riveted to little glowing rectangles held in hands.

Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose common sense. — Gertrude Stein, Reflections on the Atom Bomb, 1946

In Anglo-American culture, for the most part, we have considered it rude to look away when someone is speaking to us. However, in classrooms, workshops, and meetings, we now often look away, especially if we are part of a large audience.

I am no exception. I too have found myself at times with downcast eyes at gatherings, especially if the presentation was of information I already knew. Or if the speaker’s presentation was basically a reading of the slides, I’d read the slides, which was faster, of course, than listening to the speaker. Once I “got” it, that is, the information, I would stop listening to the speaker. So, alas, I too would then surf on my phone or laptop, work-related surfing perhaps, but rude nonetheless. And I am not a millenial.

Pay attention, pay attention, please. Isn’t this what we all want when we are speaking to someone or many someones? Whether we are whispering to our lover in bed, telling our parents we are leaving home, or describing our big idea to co-workers. 

So now, like someone prompted by the New York City MTA’s “Courtesy Counts, Manners Make a Better Ride” signs on the subway who gives up their seat to an older or disabled person, I try to give my undivided attention to the speaker, no matter what. I don’t even put my cell phone in plain sight on the conference table anymore. Awake at work.


What About the Other Side? The Speaker? The Slides?

An audience wishing to be elsewhere. It is so obvious when you the speaker have not connected with those folks in front of you. This affects your energy and sometimes the information trying to be transmitted. No wonder so many people fear public speaking more than death.

To the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy. — Jerry Seinfeld

However, many of us now are asked to give presentations or teach workshops. For the sake of career and public reputation, we say, “yes, sure, I’ll explain the quarterly report to the board next week, I’ll teach that class on HTML for beginners.” And then …

Fear of Public Speaking Infographic
Infographic thanks to Lion Fuse and the National Institute of Mental Health. 

And Then We Go to Make Our Slides

True or False? Most of the slide presentations you’ve seen in the last year have not been stellar and many have been boring or unreadable. And often these slides did not help the speakers connect to their audiences. And it is not just a matter of making your text large enough or using just so many bullets.

But before there are slides, there is you, the speaker. Presentation is about presenting first of all yourself. If you could read only one book about presenting, may I suggest Garr Reynolds’ The Naked Presenter: Delivering Powerful Presentatins With or Without Slides. 

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn. — Garr Reynolds in the The Naked Presenter

How do we create and use slides that help us wake up our audience?

How do we keep folks awake and engaged in a way that creates better listeners and speakers of us all? That creates better meetings? Better teaching sessions? Better brainstorming events?

I don’t think we should feel that because our tools have become more advanced, we are more advanced. The technology of the soul has not changed for a long time. Many times we use technological advances to stand in for we are more advanced. Jazz is not like that. You can come up with all the synthesizers you want. It’s still not going to be able to swing…. This music celebrates human beings and our creativity.  — Wynton Marsalis quoted in Garr Reynolds’ The Naked Presenter

Yes, there are books about presentation design and your slides. They are coming up in the next blog posts.

For students to pay attention in a class, there needs to be sufficient need for that attention to be devoted to the material at hand. That is, we need to engage the students in ways that make it difficult for them to pay attention to anything else. — Chris Hakala


To Be Continued …
Including Hegel, Eisenstein, and Stein


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