Lecturing: It’s About You, Not the Slides

Earlier today, I read Richard Forno’s Powerpoint Manifesto. It was a refreshing affirmation about how I have tried to minimize the use of slides in my class in favor of a more personal form of presenting. There has been some resistance to this method in class because it seems like most students are conditioned to rely on slides as the primary product of the lecture. That’s dangerous because if I don’t put it on a slide, then students don’t consider what material I’ve covered as important. Consequently, they won’t bother to study it for an exam.

Over the last few years, my goal in lecturing is to emphasize my own relationship to the material we’re covering. I often include anecdotes when discussing course material in an attempt to share my personal connections to the material. I hope that students find the connections meaningful and forge their own links to the material we’re covering. Isn’t it easier to memorize something when there’s a meaningful and lively context behind it? Some of the material I cover in lecture may not appear in the readings. That’s because not everything I’ve learn originated from our textbook. As most scholars would agree, our insight comes from studying extensively and dutifully researching over time and across a variety of sources.

Forno discusses the personal aspect of presenting, even ascribing a “soul” to the presenter and the presentation. He writes:

I firmly belive the art of “presentation” is more than reading animated bullets on a computer – it’s the speaker’s personality, dynamics, war stories, vocal inflections, dramatic pauses, spontaneous remarks, and how he interacts with the audience while conveying his MESSAGE that are the “memorable” parts of a presentation, and is traditionally how a speaker emphasizes the important points of his lecture as well.
Technology – if used – should enhance the quality of a presentation, not become the sole reason for its existience. While computers are a handy tool for presenters, they have no personality and no soul; nothing to “hook” the listener or interact with them in any meaningful way. That usually makes for a boring lecture and a well-rested audience.

Forno is not the first person to argue that slides should not be the focus of a lecture. A year ago, Gabe Zichermann discussed presentation software last on his list of tips for giving a great keynote address. Even then it was only to recommend Apple’s Keynote over the downright ubiquitous Powerpoint. Moreover, the argument that technology should serve your presentation instead of be your presentation is a common refrain that is, unfortunately, frequently ignored.

While a lecture should not revolve around reading slides, it also should not entirely consist of reading anything. Eliminating all technology from a presentation could lead to simply reading a lecture. It always saddened me that, at conferences in film and media studies, we have to read a paper, word-for-word, to be taken seriously. Our subject is inherently visual, but we must revert to a strictly textual form to present our research.

My strategy to avoid reading my lecture is simply to use an outline. To help students with studying, I post outlines of my lecture. The outlines contain almost no complete sentences, just a few key words or phrases. Each outline is a “map” of my lecture, rather than a record of it. Rather than read from them, I use them as cues, reminding me what to cover. (If I’m on my “game” however, I won’t need to look at them.) The outlines are also not study guides. They are only reminders of what I discussed in class. Attentive students should be able to reconstruct my lecture based on the slides and the outlines. But, first, they have to be there and listen to me and my message in order to make sense of them. If I gave them nothing more than what they could get from slides or an outline, then why bother meeting in person?

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