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Make a Better Presentation

Presentations: Things have changed a lot,
and not so much at all . . .

In years gone by, it was easy to find county agents and state specialists teaching Extension clientele in the dark. And there was good reason. They were using 35 mm slides showing equipment or fields to illustrate the important content they were delivering. And even more important, these images helped learners "see" the application of the content to their own operations.

Same goal, different technology

That teaching goal hasn't changed. In fact, we talk a lot about measuring our outcomes in terms of changed behavior. The only thing that's changed is the delivery technology: 35 mm slides to electronic slides and slide projectors to LCD projectors.



Achieving our goal with new technology

Our basic problem has been that we let PowerPoint or Corel Presentations take over our planning and presentation processes. It's time to take it back! To do so, let's look at some research-based principles formulated by Richard E. Mayer, psychologist at University of California-Santa Barbara.

1. Research finding: people learn better when the material is organized with clear outlines and headings.


What we do: When we load our presentation software, we see the slide layout and maybe design view. Most of us start composing our content and fiddling with the slide design at the same time. Generally, we start by putting in a slide title. This is NOT a good idea. "Design fiddling" interferes with our thinking about our content. Long ago, research into the writing process showed that we generate higher quality content when we separate writing from editing.

How to fix it:

1. Just slip right by that slide layout view and switch to the outline view. PowerPoint and Presentations both offer this view. Click Here to View How

2. And better yet, you can write your outline in each program's respective word processor and import it into the slide package. This really removes the temptation to fiddle.

3. After you've composed your outline, go to each slide and write a heading that clearly states the main idea on the slide. You may need two lines for this.

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4. Don't be intimidated by pre-set font and font sizes! Any size above 28 points will be readable.

5. Now import your outline into your presentations software.

2. Research finding: People learn better when information is presented in bite-size segments.


What we do: Most presenters are enthusiastic about their subjects. We want our learners to hear it all and be enthusiastic too. So we cram as many words on a slide as we can. Even if we follow the “666” rule of thumb (and who knows where that came from), six points is probably too many for most people’s short term memory. When short term memory can’t keep up, attention wanes

How to fix it:

1. Happily, our presentations packages supply the perfect tool to chunk our talks: the slide sorter. Go to the slide sorter view when you’re at the half-way point.

2. Look over your slides and note where your presentation naturally chunks. Do you have BIG chunks mixed in with small chunks? Not good! Each chunk should take somewhere from 6 to 10 minutes, depending on audience maturity, familiarity with your subject, physical comfort level, etc.

3. Consider adding activities that will help learners review.


3. Research finding: People understand a multimedia [PowerPoint] explanation better when the words are presented as narration rather than on-screen text.


What we do: Wow! We use words! We usually use lots of words. . . Learning to visualize the concepts, processes and principles we’re teaching may be a bit foreign to most of us. But the research is remarkably clear on this matter – especially when we’re teaching folks who are fairly new to our subject. People who are knowledgeable already have a mental structure in place and don’t have to grapple with what we’re presenting.

How to fix it: When using an electronic presentation to reinforce our message, we speak the words; they don’t need to be on the slide! Move words to the speaker notes section. Then use a photograph or graphic representation of the concept, process or procedure. It’s remarkably like those Extension specialists and agents used to do many years ago: Take photos to illustrate your point, process them into slides, and talk about them! We have it a little easier; we use digital cameras.

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4. Research finding: people learn better from words AND pictures than from words alone. In other words, label the parts of your diagram or photo.

What we do: Often when we show a photo, we don’t bother to annotate it or label it in any way. We simply talk about it.

How to fix it: Fortunately, this is an easy fix. Look at the “before and after” below and see how much clearer the labeled images are.



5. Research finding: people learn better when extra stuff is excluded rather than included.

What we do: PowerPoint is a seductive program! Its default backgrounds are usually full of distractions. And when we’ve moved on to “advanced user” status, we can add sound, video, and elaborate animation and hyperlinking.

These things, in and of themselves, aren’t wrong. They can make for highly memorable learning experiences. That’s what we want. When we stand up in front of people to tell them an important story, we want them to remember it when it comes time to use it.

How to fix it: So the fix is easy: Nothing attached to that slide should in any way distract from the message you’re delivering with that slide. Here are some things you can do.

  • Remove extraneous graphics from the background of the slide master. 
  • Better yet, create your own background to use regularly. 
  • Put K-State Research and Extension’s logo on the title slide. 
  • Put your contact information on the final slide so people can jot it down.