Ah… student presentations.  Most of us as professors use student presentations as an exercise where students demonstrate 1) their mastery of the topic and 2) their communication skills.  Most of the students I know moan and groan when they find out they have to do presentations.

Students complain about presentations largely because they fear speaking in front of people and they also get bored sitting through the presentations by their peers.

Oddly, students often complain about their professors’ wordy PowerPoint and boring presentation style.  However, when they give presentations, they often present a similar presentation.

While the wordy PowerPoint and notecard reading may show that they have researched the topic and “done their homework,” it rarely seems to focus on the communication aspect of the exercise.

A practice that I use regularly in my classes involve three major components:

  1. Slides may not have words smaller than 30 point font.
  2. The presentation should be interactive and engaging.
  3. Students present to working professionals in their field.

While the third component, I have found, is the most effective, I will discuss each one briefly here.

Slides may not have words smaller than 30 point font.

I cannot take credit for this advice.  This actually comes from a now, 10-year old practice developed by Guy Kawaski, called the 10/20/30 rule of PowerPoint.  The rule is fairly simple: 10 Slides, 20 Minutes, and 30-Point font.  This rule was developed for entrepreneurs pitching to potential investors.  While I do not necessarily conform to the 10 and 20 part of his advice, the 30-point font advice is indeed sage.  Kawasaki explains:

The reason people use a small font is twofold: first, that they don’t know their material well enough; second, they think that more text is more convincing. Total bozosity. Force yourself to use no font smaller than thirty points. I guarantee it will make your presentations better because it requires you to find the most salient points and to know how to explain them well.

I have found this to be absolutely true.  When students know they cannot “rely” on their slides, they are at first, completely freaked out.  However, when I relate it to their “boring” professor slides, they seem to get a bit more excited about the task at hand.  I actually challenge them to create slides with just pictures.

The presentation should be interactive and engaging.

When presenting this requirement, I compare speeches to presentations.  The best comparison I have found explains that speeches typically get framed as pictures on a wall, while one would not normally frame a PowerPoint and post it on a wall.  Presentations require interaction.  Every student is required to ask the audience a question.  It could be something like, “How many of you like the color blue?” or “Has anyone ever had this problem?”

What this does is it forces the students to be prepared for the unexpected.  It also forces them to slow down and pay attention to their audience.  When we do our practice presentations (which I ALWAYS require), the students will ask a question and normally the class will not respond right away.  Typically, the student quickly moves on to their point.  I ask the students to actually wait for their answers before proceeding.  It is quite amazing how students react.

When one asks a question to a room, the time it takes for people to actually answer can feel like minutes, when in reality, it is only seconds.  This is actually a primary grading criteria for their presentations: “Did they wait for the audience to respond?”  This helps the students realize that they must truly engage and connect with the people in the room.

Students present to working professionals in their field.

This is probably the single, most effective, and motivating piece to getting students to really care about their presentations.  At the beginning of the class, the students know they will be giving presentations as part of their final projects.  About halfway through the semester, I show them the list of professionals that will be present at their presentations.  This normally stops them in their tracks.

While it does take some work on the professor’s part to recruit panels of 3-5 (any more than 5 tends to be ineffective), the motivation that it results in from the students makes it worth it.  I try to recruit some of the heaviest hitters in town: CEOs, lawyers, entrepreneurs, etc.  When the students realize that they are going to have to demonstrate their knowledge to actual professionals, the game totally changes. Side note: It is quite amazing to find the enthusiasm and interest from the professional community in doing this. They love it and look forward to it every semester!

To up the stakes a bit more, I actually have the judges fill out scorecards for each presentation and their scores count for 50% of the presentation grade.  I also share the judges’ comments with the students unedited. If any of you have any interest in how I do this, I would be happy to share my scorecards and Excel spreadsheets I use to calculate the scores.

On the day of presentations, the students by and large, rise to the challenge.  It becomes apparent that they have practiced this presentation, not only in class, but out of class as well.  I can account for numerous times where students were actually offered jobs because of how polished their presentation, research, and professionalism came through during the experience.

I’ve had several students come back to me, even years later, that said, “That experience really changed my life.” Isn’t that what is all about?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on this!

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