It’s easy to bash presentations.  It’s also easy to bash presentation styles.

Included in this process is always the obligatory derogatory comments directed at PowerPoint.  Standard stuff.

Of course, much of this consternation towards presentations originates with having to sit through some really bad presentations where the presenters are just awful and have no clue how to communicate and engage an audience.  We’ve all been there.

It’s also easy to bash the lecture because everything now needs to be collaborative, on a wiki, shared in a Google Doc, or done together in a backchannel.  But I’ve attended some phenomenal lectures, where the lecturer/presenter just had tremendous ideas.  Mimi Ito and Connie Yowell come to mind, where for an hour I sat and wrote and wrote and wrote, trying to capture every profound thought.  My engagement was with the ideas, and singular.  Me.  Processing.  No one else.  Just a stream of ideas, balanced against my beliefs, with individual processing and plenty of time for collaborative discussion later.  But for an hour-me, the presenter, and ideas…

Most might look at the room and what was taking place with a presenter talking and people listening and characterize that as a passive learning experience for the participants.  But passive?  Only if you wanted it to be.  It certainly wasn’t that for me-it was very active.

And the presenters used slides.  With text.

So I was intrigued by this blog post by John Pederson, who quotes (I think it’s a quote) Heather Gold who proposes something called tummeling.

Basically, a tummler is hired to entertain and make sure everyone had a good time.  Sounds really can watch her explain it here.  Be sure to also examine her comparison between presentation and conversation, which is interesting, if not outright wrong.

It’s easy to dismiss bullet points.  I don’t think they work especially well and a presentation filled with slides of endless bullet points can be absolutely disastrous for a presenter, not to mention the audience.

But let’s not dismiss text.  Text and bullet points are two different things.

And we certainly shouldn’t dismiss slides, because slides can carry a very critical element of a presentation.


In any presentation, you are selling ideas. As Seth Godin says: “Communication is the transfer of emotion.”

And that emotion is communicated through two channels:  the presenter and through the visual content of the slides, and processed by the 3.5 pound (1.58 kg) processor inside your head, all in an effort to make meaning.

The choice not to use slides, and not to use the capacity of those slides to carry images that communicate visually, represents a shallow understanding of human communication.  As the speaker in the video indicated, effective communication is supported by an “emotional substrate.”  Yes, that can mean face to face emotion crafted by the presenter..  However, it should also mean carefully selected visuals that enhance the emotion channel of the presentation.  Ignoring visuals, or failing to include visuals, means you just ignored or failed to include a very powerful communicative element-an element that might just make all the difference.

To extend your thinking a bit, if you haven’t seen Richard Mayer’s Multimedia Learning, you should.  His book is based on “seven researched based principles for the design of multimedia messages” that we should all learn and apply to presentation design.  Here are four that I think are most relevant to this post:

1.  Multimedia Principle:  Students learn better from words and pictures than from words alone.

2.  Spatial Contiguity Principle: Students learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented near rather than far from each other on the page or screen.

3. Temporal Contiguity Principle:  Students learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented simultaneously rather than successively.

4.  Individual Differences Principle:  Design effects are stronger for low-knowledge learners than for high-knowledge learners and for high-spatial learners rather than for low-spatial learners.

Basically, images and text are critical to learning, and especially more so for low-ability learners when the media design is appropriate.

Let’s not forget that presenting is communication.  Let’s not forget that presenting has its place.

And there are numerous ways to present ideas, ranging from Twitter to blogging to sitting on a stool, telling a story.  You can even…ah…tummel.  However, presenting to a small or large audience alike requires, skill, effort, and knowledge as well as an understanding of human communication.  It’s in vogue to consider new ways to communicate, new ways to engage an audience, its vogue to present using a test-based wiki for example.

But having an audience walk away with being energized, being challenged to think, being moved by a message communicated through appropriate media, and with the ability to process additional insights that can lead to actionable next steps that they didn’t have an hour ago is also pretty damn good…

Mayer, Richard. Multimedia Learning. 9th ed. New York, New York.  Cambridge University Presss, 2007. 184. Print.

6 Responses to “Presentation Vogue”
  1. Chris Craft says:


    Thanks for a balanced look at presentations. You raise interesting issues in our unending search for the right way to do this thing called presenting.

    I am also appreciative of your mention of Richard Mayer. He is a colleague of my dissertation chair and I am a big fan of his work. He effectively blends our knowledge of human cognition and the perils of cognitive overload.

    I think you are also correct in saying that emotion plays an important role.


    Chris Craft

  2. Steve Ransom says:

    I’m with you, David. Presentation style, design,…all important, but too often folks expend more brain energy on critiquing such elements rather than the content and clarity of the ideas being presented. To me, I couldn’t care less (almost) if there were too many bullet points or poorly designed slides… if the presenter is engaging, knowledgeable, connects with the audience, is responsive, and doesn’t let the slides themselves carry the conversation or do the communicating…. (and granted, there often seems to be a relationship between the quality of the visual presentation and the quality of the human presentation). The less we get of the “good stuff”, the more we tend to focus on the presentation “accoutrements” – and undoubtedly, it is nice when both come together as a well-crafted package. But if we can be moved by a good book – full of text -skillfully written by a profound author, then we should be able to handle text during a presentation… and yes, not get insulted when some of those words have bullets in front of them. But, speakers beware… if you fail to do what good speakers/teachers must, then your audience has plenty of time to spend finding fault with all kinds of things.

    Great post.

  3. “The choice not to use slides, and not to use the capacity of those slides to carry images that communicate visually, represents a shallow understanding of human communication. ”

    I’m in complete agreement, but let me push back a bit. I want to challenge you to look deeper into what Heather is talking about regarding tummeling. (10 minutes) (60 minutes)

    Heather pulls most of this from her experience as a comedian. Good comedians develop a sense of how to “work the room”. They draw the crowd in and make them feel a part of the experience. Contrast that with bad comedians who simply get on stage and tell jokes. Take the same skills from comedy, hosting a party, or having a conversation at a bar. Mix them with a bit of professionalism, some big ideas, a compelling message, and deliver them in your typical hotel conference room.

    I’ll reference two of the most effective “tricks” I’ve seen.

    Two years back I saw that David Jakes had brought his own fold-up stool. “Are Wisconsin chairs not good enough?” When I saw how he used it, I was blown away. Imagine your typical partitioned conference room, screen in front, 100 chairs lined up look at screen. Projector in the front-center of the room. Podium off to the side. Jakes begins near the podium and works around the front of the room as he gets started. When it comes time for demo, however, he sits on a little black stool next to a table in the middle of the room. He’s able to pivot around, keeping everybody in the audience engaged, focusing on the computer when necessary, but being very flexible. It also brings him “down” to a level equal to the audience. There are some subtle messages in this posture that, when combined with standing in front and doing the typical “working the crowd” moves, are very powerful.

    The second trick I learned from presenting with Bernajean Porter. We had a group of 50 teachers. I started with an introduction/overview of the day that lasted about 10 minutes. She later tipped me with a trick. Let the audience use their voice first. If the speaker gets up and talks too long on the front end, you’ve set the stage that it’s about you. Letting them have voice early gives the entire audience a sense that they “own” their learning that day. I hope that makes sense.

    Both are techniques used by good comedians.

  4. DSJ says:

    @Steve: Its all about being a teacher and telling stories.

    @Chris: Mayer’s work is exceptional-I think it’s a book that should be on every teachers shelve. A slow read for me due to the heavy processing, but really good stuff. Will you talk about any of this in your presentation at Educon?

    @iJohn: Working the room is fine and but it can take you only so far. In your description, you didn’t mention what David Jakes’ was speaking about. You remembered the chair so I guess at least you might have learned about a presentation option. How effective was that really? What did Jakes speak about on that day?

  5. Chris Craft says:

    @djakes, Yes, I will talk much about this at EduCon.

    I’d be glad to chat with you if you ever want to hear more about CLT also.


  6. heather gold says:

    Thanks for your response to my stuff. When I run the UnPresenting workshop , which is where you got the pullquote ie “no bulletpoints. no slides” i don’t include either of those things because the focus is on helping poeple be present and engaging wit hthe room and learning to read the room.

    In some situations slides and especially images make sense. I’ve not said anywhere that they should never be used so I’m not sure how you got that impression. But it’s important to learn how to skate before you pick up a stick to play hockey well and many presenters lean heavily on slides as a crutch to help them deal with their anxiety about speaking in public.

    It is exceptionally difficult to emotionally engage others if you’re not present. If you have a great slide show that doesn’t need you, you can email it in or just do a voice over from behind the stage. If you’re interested in learning to read the room and create something more experiential then the approach I’m advocating can help you a lot.

    The majority of presenters I see at conferences are wedded to their slides. They have clearly written their presentation by writing slides and have prioritized the slides over any focus on paying attention to whether or not anything they’re saying is connecting with the room.

    I agree with you that emotion and caring are absolutely critical. But that is most effective coming from the person in front of the room. If images are the main conveyance of the emotional in what you’re doing, then why not send a film? Why be there live?

    I’m applying what I’ve learned from a decade of interactive performance. It is possible to create a strong emotional connection in the room and energize a room with an inquiry. IN fact, I think it’s easier for most people to learn to do that than to learn to be great one-to-many presenters.

    Students, I’d rather say participants in my approach, learn (and teach) even better from experience than even images or words.

    The Net does pure information transfer beautifully. If we’re going to be together in a room, let’s take advantage of that. The Net and UnConferences have opened people up to the idea of collective inquiry over an expert doing pure information transfer in person.

    Performers, presenters, anyone cares more about something they’re engaged in *right now* that’s relevant to the room than something they’ve memorized , repeat over and over and never change. That means leaving room in your approach to have things shift.

    I hope this explains my thinking and approach a little better.


Leave a Reply