Teaching Presentation Skills

Please take a minute to respond if you have insight, feedback, or strong feelings about teaching presentations. I could use some help.

My ninth graders gave presentations this week. Here are some things I noticed:

  • They talked to the screen (SMARTBoard) instead of to their audience.
  • They appeared to be reading their presentations for the first time; they didn’t have a facility or familiarity with their topic.
  • They crowded their slides with clashing colors, animated gifs, and too much text.

I realize that students should be taught how to present, but everything I learned about presenting I dug around and found online. Here’s a good example.

I admit I feel frustrated because so much already falls on the English department, and I cannot be the only teacher who is asking students to present. I just don’t believe that. I also admit it didn’t occur to me to do direct instruction in teaching presentations—a mistake I will not make again, I assure you. So how would you recommend teaching students good presentation skills?

34 thoughts on “Teaching Presentation Skills”

  1. I, too, have experienced what you've experienced. I do not have any tips other than what you've pointed out–to give them good examples of what to do and a few examples of what not to do.

  2. My college business writing students just did presentations using ppt. I set aside rehersal times and taped them so they could see themselves reading off the slides. I also had them sit in the room while I showed their slides and discussed how to make them more effective for the audience.

    1. Taping is a great idea. To quote Robert Burns, "O wad some Power the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!"

      1. I've had students record themselves presenting through Audacity or other programs and considered that a required "draft," just as they do for essays.

  3. My school is beginning discussion of formal oral presentation skills as part of our graduation requirements. It is ESSENTIAL that our children learn to present themselves and their work competently. I have been informally including presentation skills in my junior and senior classes for four years. My students begin every year by memorizing a poem and delivering it to the class. (This year I expanded the effort to include the Poetry Out Loud contest, which I highly recommend. The program comes with great videos of how to do it well.) Second quarter, they work in groups to plan and deliver a multimedia lesson plan (this year, the Middle Ages) to the class. I spend two class periods discussing how to do it, what works, and providing examples of those who do it well. And this quarter, pairs of students are creating video podcasts (magical realist writers & artists) which they then present to the class, providing commentary on their process. It is rudimentary, but I decided this year to make them comfortable speaking in front of others. Next year, it gets serious. I am afraid that any time the subject of oral presentation comes up in a faculty meeting, every one turns to the English Department, as if we were the only environment for such things! So, I do not have easy solutions, but I do think we can work on this. And should.

    Link to my last blog on the topic of my own powerpoint presentations :http://bit.ly/9pqncN

    1. Now I like the idea of making presentation skills a graduation requirement. Students are definitely going to need presentation skills.

  4. Great post today! This is a constant battle. We spend an entire semester in my district devoted to Oral Communication. I have always taught this class and we make great strides with these kids. However, I looped to 10th grade this year and I am amazed at how little they apply to their every day presentations.

    They are infamous for not ever reading their speeches out loud. The only thing that has ever worked is having them present their speeches to their parents or guardians…then they actually have to say it out loud.

  5. I teach science, but typically have students give at least 1 oral, slide-deck supported presentation during their time in my class. Like you, the first couple iterations I found myself cringing while staring at the back of my students' heads as they read in monotone off their bullet-pointed, neon pink and green texted slides. Ouch.

    Next time around I changed the requirements a little. By far the most effective change was to tell them they couldn't have any more than 3 words and any slide (other than citations). This caused some minor freak-outs ("But…how do I include all the information?!!") which were eventually calmed down when I was able to convince them that their voice was perfectly capable at conveying information. If you'd like to see the handout I give students, you can view a pdf version here.

    I also made up a little slide deck to help illustrate some presentation tips, which really did seem to help improve the overall quality of the slides. You can view it in pdf form here, but if it needs more explanation or you'd like either of these files in a different format, just let me know.

    Hope this helps!

  6. Obviously this is one that a lot of people can relate to. Particularly in English, where (as you mentioned) we already teach multiple content areas (reading, writing…), this can be cumbersome. Like Ben, the best progress I've made with my 8th and 9th graders has come because I place strict limits on what they can include in their visuals – no more than 5 words per PPT slide or 20 words for a poster; the visuals must be purposeful and enhance your presentation, etc.

    The other helpful tool I've found is to teach students how to make "keyword outlines." Once they understand that a speech outline is meant to be more like cue cards, they start to realize that images (specifically, photos) are much more powerful reminders of what they want to say. When they realize that, they realize that it's much more powerful for their audience, as well.

    Anyway, that's just my experience. I love some of the other ideas I'm seeing, as well.

  7. Hi Dana,

    I rely a lot on presentation zen ideas when I teach students about presenting. I advocate against bullets and animation in favor of provocative design that supports the content of the presentation.

    I ask students to recognize that the speakers is more important than the slide. So our effort should go into speaking rather than creating slides.

    I usually do a practice round where students need to give a one minute speech using a single image as a background. I have fifteen general images that students can choose.

    Hope this helps,


  8. I don't remember where I heard of it, but there was a man who advocated a 10x10x10 rule (you could adjust to suit): 10 minutes, 10 slides, 10 words per slide.

    An interesting idea (I haven't tried) is to do a keyword presentation where they can only put ONE word on each slide (centered and BIG). Or where they can only use ONE image per slide. I think I might try those out next year. 🙂

    1. I think Amanda has it in spades here. We need to teach them to function well within constraints, whatever those may be. One of my professors remarked long ago that creatives don't function well without boundaries to bang up against. If we take that logic, then we need to limit the liberties they are allowed to take when presenting.

      Check out the Ignite series of presentations, whereby you are limited by time constraints, or something like that. They need to see what great presenters look like. Show them Lessig's TEDxNYED talk. Give them the idea that it's about the story they tell, not the bells and whistles.

      1. I was really kicking myself for not really making parameters or constraints. No wonder their presentations weren't good. They had no idea what to do.

  9. @Amanda Youngblood, You may be thinking of Kawasaki's 10/20/30 rule: 10 slides, 20 minutes, 30 point or larger font

    When my Current Events students insisted on using PowerPoint for their presentations, the limits I imposed were that there only be text on the title & citation pages (I did bend a little here) and no animations. I wanted them to use images to convey themes, then flesh out their ideas while speaking.

    No Death by PowerPoint in my class!

    1. Thanks for the great resources, Buffy! I was hoping you would see my post—you have such a great blog and wiki with so many resources. Other folks need to know about them.

  10. Hi Dana,

    Here are some resources on designing and giving presentations:

    Garr Reynolds http://www.presentationzen.com/ and his two books, Presentation Zen & Presentation Zen Design – the combination covers the physical act of presenting & the art of crafting slideshows

    Nancy Duarte
    http://blog.duarte.com/ and her book slide:ology

    I have long felt a class in this would be useful for students AND teachers, and am offering such a course in the fall. In fact, for you and everyone who visits here, I'd welcome feedback on my current outline, which also has loads of resource links. http://bit.ly/bIzvGO

    Am enjoying the conversation!

    Regards, Laurie

    1. Thanks for the great resources. I have downloaded a sample of Presentation Zen on my Kindle, and I've been trying to figure out if I should buy it. It might be one of those books that isn't as good on Kindle.

  11. Dana—thanks so much! YOUR blog always inspires me! Here is a thought—if you decide to teach your kids this skill, I wonder if we could somehow set it up to maybe stream some of the presentations to each other next year with the classes I'm working with? Maybe we could even collaborate across units and do some virtual discussions with my classes and yours via Skype?

    1. I'd love to. I am going to start planning for next year pretty much as soon as my summer starts. My students would love collaboration.

  12. I like the idea of one word. That would be hard. I inadvertently left the word "pages" off a recent college essay narrative writing assignment, and students were asking "two to three what, Mrs. Huff?" and I said "two to three words would be harder, but I meant pages."

  13. Hi Dana,

    I highly recommend the book in print version, as Garr took great care with the layout and design to highlight the concepts of Presentation Zen design and presentation.

    Cheers, Laurie

  14. In my team-taught classes across many subjects and many years, the missing element of direct instruction in most regular ed classes is the "guided practice" stage. You can tell them what to do, but if they never have the chance to give or receive corrective feedback, independent performance suffers.

    However, I can't see how you'd be able to have everyone run a sample and get feedback, timewise. I like the videotaping idea – maybe just a couple of brave souls; at least you can reuse the videos in the future.

    Also, I'd consider having students come in from upper grades and higher levels to do live demonstrations. Have your kids grade them using the rubric you'll use for them. Not as useful as them receiving their own personal corrective feedback, but you can correct their impressions of what they see.

    1. Thanks! On reflection, I know that the problem was that I didn't take the time to teach students how to present—the guided practice—so they threw something together. I wound up not giving grades for it, and the students haven't asked for grades, either. Obviously in the future, I will teach it differently, especially after all these helpful comments. On the other hand, I do feel frustrated that presentation skills, once again, seem to be the purview of the English department. I am also wondering why my students are not required to take an Introduction to Computers course that focuses on word processing skills, browsing and searching online (I'd be surprised if most of them knew how to conduct boolean searches), presentation skills, and perhaps even some rudimentary maintenance skills. I had to fix the space bar on a keyboard in our computer lab a couple of weeks ago, and I was disgusted by what junk I found in the keyboard—even though eating is not allowed in the lab.

  15. Even we college teachers face similar problems, enhanced by students' fear that they must demonstrate they consulted & read lots of sources. I find that I must make clear that 50% (or more) of grade based on oral presentation (including information not on slides). I also suggest they have slide at end of Additional Sources.

    An alternative I have used to the "only images" or "just 3 words" is to suggest the model of the children's Golden books – has a little text, not in bullet points, and mostly pictures. For an example see the Ada Lovelace Picture Book at Slideshare.net. Another student prepared graphics in cartoon style using Toondoo.com and then imported into Powerpoint, adding additional graphics. See FAFSA Fail at slideshare.net

  16. I teach Presentation Skills as a professional Development Session for adults. They experience the same problems that all of you are describing. That's one of the reasons that Public Speaking is the number 1 fear… I wouldn't have them too focused on PowerPoint. It's only purpose is to enhance the presentation; not replace it. You will know when they are relying to heavily on the PowerPoint because the slides will be cluttered with information rather than main ideas to speak from. Having them speak on a consistent basis will bring the greatest results. Even 2 minutes per week on a prepared topic or having them do a teach back of course material for review will put them in front of the room and increase their comfort level. Feel free to reach out to me anytime.

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