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You probably think your PowerPoints are pretty good.
I definitely thought mine were. I knew what bad PowerPoints looked like: Too many words packed onto each slide. Transitions that were too swirly, sparkly, checkerboardy. No consistency in fonts or colors.
Mine were nothing like that.
So when I first came across Garr Reynolds’ book Presentation Zen, my attitude could only be described as smug: I expected it to tell me I was doing everything exactly right, with a few minor tips for improvement. That notion lasted three minutes. After skimming a few pages of the book, I knew my slides were about to change forever. (Links to the book: Bookshop.org | Amazon | What’s the difference?)
If you work in education, presentation is a daily thing for you. And if you’re presenting, you’re probably using either PowerPoint or Keynote as a backdrop. You see slideshows in meetings, at professional development workshops, at conferences. They’re everywhere, and they’re almost all terrible. That’s why we all need this book.
The Pillars of Presentation Zen
The mission of Presentation Zen is simple: to rid the world of bad PowerPoint. And “bad” goes beyond aesthetics. Although you’ll definitely be pushed toward cleaner, more sophisticated design, the book’s message is bigger: Our presentations – our lessons – are boring. We take material that once stirred us so much we built a career on it, and we reduce it to dry, uninspired text, effectively sucking the soul right out of it. And when we present, we compound the problem: Instead of talking directly to our audience like human beings, we read straight from those soul-sucking slides.
As soon as I started reading this book, I seriously couldn’t wait to get my hands on my slides. It was like a light switch going off in my brain. And I want that switch to go on in classrooms all over the world. The book does a brilliant job of explaining and illustrating its principles, but I’ll summarize the Presentation Zen approach here:
Limit text on slides: Your slides are meant to supplement your talk, not provide all the content. If you stick to just a few words per slide – the most important ones – you’ll be forced to speak to your audience, which will be so much more engaging for them. The finer details can be provided on a handout at the end of the presentation; in a school setting, they may be assigned as reading. If your initial presentation is powerful enough, students will be more motivated to do the reading.
Make it visual: Images are incredibly powerful for making a point and strengthening cognitive processing. Anytime you can represent an idea visually, rather than just in text, your slides will actually be helping your students remember the concepts better. (In this TEDx Talk, Presentation Zen author Garr Reynolds illustrates this idea beautifully.)
Tell a story: Your overall message will stick much better if it’s told as a story. This may be challenging at first, but once you make the decision to find the story in the content, you may be surprised. History is obviously loaded with narratives — captivate your students with one gripping personal account of a specific event before giving them all the dates and major players of that era. Science may at first seem to be all about the facts, but behind every fact is a tale of discovery (What was the world like before penicillin?), or one of impact (What do we learn about groundwater from the legal battles of Erin Brockovich?). In health class, tell the story of one girl whose life was changed by a teen pregnancy before introducing the RealCare Baby assignment. In math, begin a unit on statistics with the story of how a company was able to fool its customers with clever manipulation of numbers. You may not be able to do it every time, for every lesson, but with practice, you’ll become more adept at framing your content inside stories.
Following the Zen Path for Yourself
Making the switch can be time-consuming at first. If you have a year’s worth of lectures already created in the “original” style of PowerPoint, the thought of revamping all of them could overwhelm you.
So start small. Pick one presentation that’s planned for later this year that you feel passionate about, do a “save as” with a new name, and start messing around with the PowerPoint. Begin by stripping as much text as you can: Challenge yourself to represent the same idea in fewer words, knowing you’ll do the explaining in person, and pull the specific details into a separate handout. Then see if you can convert more of the text to visuals: Even using the SmartArt feature to arrange concepts into graphic organizers can represent their relationships better than a list of bullet points. Finally, consider switching from the template you’re using to a clean, blank one, and add images that further illustrate your concepts. If you are working in social studies or science, the images available to you are incredibly rich – fill a whole slide with one of these and see how differently it grabs your students.
There really is no substitute for reading the actual book, which is engaging and beautifully designed, but in case you’re still not convinced, I created this video showing a before and after of one of my old PowerPoint slides, to give you a clearer picture of the Presentation Zen approach:
Considering how much time we spend looking at bad PowerPoints, the world would definitely be a better place if more people read this book. Not only will we spend less time fighting sleep in classrooms and conference rooms, but we’ll have more of the joy that comes with sharing our passions, the real joy of learning. ♥