TES time for presenting

An elephant with a ribbon tied on its trunk
TES image for the article on learning

The TES (Times Educational Supplement) on June 2nd, 2017 has a cracker of an article. Dylan Wiliam talks sense about how people (well, school pupils!) learn. Now, given how much tosh is put about by WIKIexperets without any substance I normally make a point of checking the original research in this kind of second hand report.

But this time I’m going to make an exception and report it before I’ve had time to do that – in part because I don’t have time to read everything – but largely because Dylan Wiliam is so much of an expert jus going to stand in awe and bask in his wisdom.

I’m also going to risk shooting myself in the foot, because I’m going to hack a little at things I’ve said in the past myself. For example, while this blog wasn’t suggesting that we limit what we say to our audiences (it was about rehearsal and getting the basics of what we do on stage right when we make presentations) I did cite the famous Maya Angelou line about people not remember what we said or did, just how we made them feel.

A philosophical issue about how presenters approach presenting – particularly professional ones

Let’s start with a philosophical, almost moral, qualm I have about one of the underlie-ing tenets of speakers (particularly professional presenters) – specifically, people have a very limited ability to remember what they’re told in presentations, and so we should limit what we tell them. The idea is that if you tell people too much, they remember none of it. All the advice is about reducing what we say in our presentations and working to get over only one/three key messages, depending on how hardline the advisor is being.

But if teachers did that, no school pupil would ever pass a single GCSE exam!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that audience members remember everything you tell them in a presentation, but I am saying that:

  • the more they remember, the greater the chance they’ll apply what we’re telling them and hence the greater the chances are of our presentation being a success, as change is what we’re aiming for
  • it behoves us as presenters then, to at least try and do whatever we can to increase how much our audiences remember of our presentation, rather than just retreating: going too far down that route leads to simplistic parodies of what we know.

I’m not saying it’s easy, just ask any teacher, nor am I saying audiences can remember lots, but we should at least be trying to expand what’s remembered rather than reduce what we say.

What Dylan Wiliam reports about learning

So then… with my philosophical cards on the table, what is it that this TES article (paywall, sorry!) explains so nicely?

The presenting often gets in the way of learning

Short term memory is limited. Well yes, we all think we know this, but have we considered what it means as presenters? In the presentation itself we’re largely working with people’s short term memory (that is, the memory used to help people do what they’re doing, just as dialling a phone number) rather than the long term memory (the knowledge of the phone number itself).  That’s when a badly labeled diagram, for example, can use up a higher proportion of a very limited resource. By chewing up ‘cognitive capacity’ there’s not much brain capacity left for people to process what the diagram means – so much effort has been put into trying to understand it.

Let’s take some work of John Sweller, and Australian psychologist as an example. Sweller gave a series of maths tests to students – they got some right and they got some wrong – but that’s not the point.  The point is that while the students were so focused, were working so hard, on solving the problems, they had not ‘head space’ left to notice that the problems they were solving all had the same method for being solved. In other words, they didn’t learn the bigger picture about how to solve such problems in the first place.

With my tongue in my cheek, they were too busy learning, to really learn.

Ask yourself, how many of the slides, diagrams, analogies or stories in your presentation require your audience to think so hard on the slide/diagram/analogy/story that you actually reduce the ability of people to learn from that very slide/diagram/analogy/story? I’m guessing a lot more than you think, because most presenters over-estimate their audience’s knowledge.

Just like the maths teacher who should use worked examples, with the answers included (so that students learn the process without the added stress caused by the fear of getting things wrong), a presenter should make sure that people have the information they need to get the main point. Slides with bad labels, silly fonts, trick questions, irritating animations and pointless decoration should be a think of the past.

What people remember isn’t to do with retrieving the information

Citing Prof Robert Bjork, Wiliam reports work that suggests we don’t forget things like we think we do. Old school models of memory suggest that if we don’t use information we lose it. That is, memory decays or atrophies over time. Bjork’s work illustrates that the information is still there, it’s just that what has decayed is our ability to retrieve that information, not that the information isn’t there to retrieve.  That’s hugely important to the presenter, because it means that what matters for subsequent recall by our audiences is how well they learned things in the first place. That needs a totally different approach to the way presenters usually work: for example, instead of a simple, linear presentation, which looks slick, we should consider things like:

  • looping back to previous content to encourage linking and recall
  • judicious questioning of what the audience has ‘got’
  • asking the audience for help when they need to remember something themselves…

That flies in the face of what we instinctively want to do, as presenters.

Confidence is self-correcting

This one is perhaps less easily transferred from the classroom to the presentation, I admit. Janet Metcalf, working at Columbia University is challenging the old belief that the more strongly someone believes something to be true, the harder it is to correct them if they’re wrong. It turns out, however, that the more confident someone is about a fact, the less likely they are to repeat that mistake, once they’re corrected. This one has significant implications for how I personally present, because I often work with a triage in mind: I don’t waste my time trying to change the behaviour of people who are so entrenched in their beliefs that there hassle-to-potential-benefit ratio of targeting them isn’t high.

With this knowledge, it looks like I might have to re-think that approach – or at least modify it to also look at the confidence of those people.

How we can use that in our presenting

That’s the big question, isn’t it!

I’ve given some ideas in the sections above, but for me the big difference these things make is not in the specific tactics I’ve suggested here – rather The Big Change comes from a shift in our mind-set of thinking small and trying to reduce what we do to what we believe is our audience’s perceived capacity. Instead we should be thinking bigger, and looking for ways to increase that capacity. No doubt that we’ll find ways, as presenters, once we start to look!

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