Monthly Archives: January 2010

Learning Styles and Presenting: Are you using poor science to deliver your Keynotes?

If you take your presentation giving seriously, no doubt you will have conducted some research along the way, otherwise you’d never have arrived at this small part of the blogosphere.

That research could have taken one of a number of turns along the way, including researching:

1. Your audience

2. Your subject material

3. The intersection between your preferred presenting style, the subject material and the audience.

Now if you’re here on this blog, your preferred presenting style is likely to include using slideware such as Keynote or Powerpoint, but it could also include Apple’s Preview or Quicktime, or Adobe’s Acrobat amongst a number of multimedia applications. But there maybe times when you’ll decide that (1) and (2) together suggest leaving aside technologies, and just doing a stand-and-deliver, such as being a best man or bridesmaid, father or mother of the bride or groom, sports coach or trainer, etc.

Now for some time it’s been argued in train-the-trainer and pedagogical domains that audience members have their own learning style, and presenters do well to try and match those style(s).

If you head into the literature to read up on learning styles, one of the terms you’ll most readily come upon is called VARK, which stands for Visual Aural Read/write Kinaesthetic, and refers to modalities of learning and expression.

The suggestion is that information presented in certain ways is more likely to be assimilated when its presentation style matches that of the receiver’s preferred learning style. In the therapy field, the question of preferred style has been popularised by the controversial therapeutic approach known as Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP), which has also made inroad into corporate training.

Relevance to Presentation Skills

If you attend 99% of Powerpoints delivered in the corporate world, it would be fair to say that the presenters (or is it the HR or Marketing departments) have made an implicit assumption that their audiences’ preferred learning style is Read/Write, with a little Aural thrown in when the presenter reads the slide to you!

Which is at odds with what recent neuroscience tells us about the centrality of the visual system to our operating in the world outside our heads, ie., while many of us engage in loads of self-talk (hundreds of words a minute said to ourselves) in terms of perceiving the world out there, we use our visual systems in preference to our other senses.

In contrast, I’ll often talk about my dog, Shrek, when speaking with groups (and patients for that matter) about information processing as it’s generally believed canines’ order of preference for sense-making is: Olfactory (smell), then Aural, then Visual. If you watch your dog closely, you’ll see his or her nostrils flaring frequently, sampling the odours around him (and at quite some distance too), and his ears will cock and move around independently (most easily seen on a German Shepherd Dog, like Shrek). He’ll prefer to initially sniff and cock ears, than move his head to look.

The idea of representational system preferences, as argued by those who advocate systems like VARK, has been around for quite some time, especially when it comes to the teaching of children. And of course, in the professional domain of presenting to adults, it also bears some thought as to how an audience can best learn new material.

But short of giving everyone a questionnaire before the presentation and then doing the math on the group’s average scores (you can look at a VARK questionnaire here), what can a presenter do? And moreover, is it that necessary to think about these styles, apart from the predominance of the visual to humans?

New and controversial research was published late last year in the journal, Psychological Science in the Public Interest. (You can see an abstract here). Entitled, Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence, the paper (Authors: Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork) discusses the history of learning styles and serves to challenge many of the assumptions which have been held dear by many trainers over the last few decades.

Here is a part of the Abstract:

“For more than three decades, the idea that instructional methods should match a student’s particular learning style has been a powerful influence in education. The wide appeal of the notion that, for example, some students best learn visually while others best learn by listening is evident in the vast number of learning-style tests and teaching guides available for purchase and used in schools. But does scientific research really support the learning-styles hypothesis?  In a new assessment of the available evidence, authors Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork conclude that the learning-styles hypothesis has little, if any, empirical grounding.”

Now if you are steeped in your thinking about learning styles, this will come as something of a slap in the face.

It’s much like I present to Presentation Magic attendees steeped in the cognitive style of Powerpoint who are in for a rude shock when I suggest that slides filled with text and abiding by certain rules such as “6 x 6” (“slides should contain no more than six lines each containing six words”) have no empirical support.

Here’s how the authors conclude their abstract:

“What psychological evidence does show is that people are inclined to hold false beliefs about how they learn and that they tend to learn and teach others in nonoptimal ways. Among other things, the report has significant implications for instructional approaches, and underscores the need to ensure that teaching methods are informed by sound scientific research, not fad educational theories or intuition.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s David Glenn interviewed the lead author, Harold Pasher, who offered the money quote for presenters:

“What (it) means for instructors.. is that they should not waste any time or energy trying to determine the composition of learning styles in their classrooms. (Are 50 percent of my students visual learners? Are 20 percent of them kinesthetic learners?)

Instead, teachers should worry about matching their instruction to the content they are teaching. Some concepts are best taught through hands-on work, some are best taught through lectures, and some are best taught through group discussions.”

In other words, if we can generalise to adults in presentations (perhaps a dangerous thing to do), do understand in general how humans learn, but keep a close eye on your content and how it can best be presented so that most in the audience have a half-chance of catching on!

And it also means, mixing it up, repeating the message in a variety of formats, switching modalities including your voice cadence, can all serve to increase the chances of audience engagement (and learning)  as well as having them do things, even if it means unsettling them emotionally before you bring your talk back on topic (something I just seem to do without much effort or preparation. I call it my “Huh? Aha!” approach to presenting. It’s my personal style, but one I use sparingly, mixing it up with other styles). Having your audience just sit there and read your slides (or have you read them) is almost universally high on lists of presenting don’ts, but still remains the dominant method of presenting.

In my Presentation Magic workshops, I look to the evidence and try to acquaint attendees with what to me is the research that informs the presenting-by-slideware domain. Several names appear frequently in the literature, and one of them is Richard Mayer from UCSB, who has researched more than most the constructs underlying multimedia learning.

The Chronicle’s Glenn also asked him about the Pasher et al research:

“Even though the learning-style idea might not work,” says Richard E. Mayer, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, “it might encourage teachers to think about how their students learn and what would be the best instructional methods for a particular lesson.”

Not everyone supports the research findings just published, suggesting that the paper is too thin when it comes to research showing that tracking students learning styles is a good thing.

Here’s how Glenn concludes his article, with part of an interview with David Kolb, a Professor of Organisation Learning at Case Western who has been in the forefront of this research for several decades:

“… Mr. Kolb also says that the paper’s bottom line is probably correct: There is no strong evidence that teachers should tailor their instruction to their students’ particular learning styles. (Mr. Kolb has argued for many years that college students are better off if they choose a major that fits their learning style. But his advice to teachers is that they should lead their classes through a full “learning cycle,” without regard to their students’ particular styles.)

“Matching is not a particularly good idea,” Mr. Kolb says. “The paper correctly mentions the practical and ethical problems of sorting people into groups and labeling them. Tracking in education has a bad history.”

In my next article I’m going to look at how two top thinkers in the presentation field, Garr Reynolds and Nancy Duarte, ask their students and clients to conceive of presenting along two orthogonal dimensions. Then I’m going to show you why that’s only part of the story, and why you need to consider a third dimension.

Better Presentations in 2010: Starting the year with a Keynote presentation tip and demonstration

Welcome to 2010, which is either the end of the first decade of the 2000’s or the first year of the second decade. Personally, I see it as the end of the first decade since there was no year 0.

In previous years, by now I would be in the US, either in NYC, Miami, LA or San Francisco (or all four from Christmas onwards) preparing to attend Macworld. But right now, things here in Melbourne are quiet and leisurely, so it gives time to catch up on TV and videos I didn’t see during the year, and of course prepare for Presentation Magic at Macworld in February.

Why would I spend time doing this during summer, when so many Aussies are outdoors? Well, it’s not as if I’m in hibernation, but we occasionally have such hot days here (over 40C several days in a row) that it’s best to stay indoors and avoid getting burnt to a sizzle. But more importantly, I get a chance to take my time pouring over media which I use for inspiration when preparing my Macworld presentation, as I’ll describe in a tip for better presentations a little later. But first…

What I was doing in 2009

I’ve  just about finished working on a year long project with my old college professor helping him develop a corporate-based resilience/better workplace performance program and book, using Keynote as the central message delivery tool. The delightful Acorn software has proved its utility in helping transfer Keynote’s exported slide images into a format suitable for inclusion in a workbook. Quite pricy at $49.95, I had originally purchased it as one of the apps. in a bundle that itself was about $60, so it’s update fee of about $20 was reasonable.

The main reason for getting the update was to take advantage of its ability to resize the images Keynote exported its slides as (72dpi) to a size the book publisher demanded (300dpi). Once this conversion takes place in only a moment, there is a menu instruction in Acorn which allows you to directly bring the image into Mail and send it, saving quite a few clicks.

Working over the length of time we’ve spent together with the Prof who is steeped in using Powerpoint for all his training and lecturing, has allowed me to see how he has grasped the more visual method I’ve been advocating for a few years now, in place of a text-dense style more commonly seen in the sciences and enterprise setting.

After a little time getting him oriented, the Prof quickly understood what I was on about, and became a very good apprentice, a rather ironic reversal of roles, but not an unprecedented one in the science field. I had a distinct advantage in being persuasive because the Prof’s background is delivering training systems in emotional regulation to teachers, students, and school systems. As such, he was very much up on children’s development in terms of their cognitive and emotional development, and of course their learning styles.

And being heavily involved in the teaching and training of teachers, he was aware of just how much new media is influencing that teaching, which made my use of Keynote so much easier for him to absorb.

A second and ongoing example

I’m also working currently on a new professional education program for my professional society. The aim is to bring recent graduates, as well as old heads, up to date with new new business models of practice management. This is especially important in Australia because of the admission of psychology services into our nationalised medicine scheme. Prior to 2006, mental health services within the public sector were primarily delivered by GPs and psychiatrists. Private psychologists’ services were only rebated if you had private health insurance, which here in Australia operates on a user-pays system, rather than the employer providing benefits.

When psychological services became rebatable under our universal health scheme, many psychologists left government and corporate employ to set up practices, while many freshly-minted graduates could hang up their shingle without the previous need to gather experience as an associate or employee of more experienced practitioners. Without their courses offering any business skills training, you can imagine that not all graduates, no matter how effective they may be, will survive the vicissitudes of being self-employed.

Hence, the desire to offer post-graduate training in business skills, which will also give applied training in both marketing and ethical behaviour. I was asked to join the reference group not just because I was a well known practitioner, but because the group leadership hoped to tap into my presentation skills.

The group has been meeting for several months, with a number of modules written already. Now it becomes my task to begin to turn them into some deliverable format suitable for both group training, and web-based delivery. Now, a few of the group know of my particular skills, while others merely thought I was proficient in Powerpoint. After all, how much variation can there be in how psychologists present?

A few weeks ago, with the group wishing to move to the next stage of the project, from writing to delivery, it was my turn to show my wares. At the last moment, one of the module writers decided not to travel to the meeting, leaving me to develop his module presentation alone, and to present it too. Because the module was text-dense, written as a Word document, it took some time to think through how I would stick to my design principles, avoid doing an expected text-dump onto a slide, yet capture the attention of the rather jaded group who have seen more than their fair share of disengaging presentations.

I had to also consider not taking them too far out of their comfort zone, so I chose a combination of text and visual slides. The question was how to introduce the text while not making it seem like just another Powerpoint slide, and to do it in just a few slides, because we were time-poor.

I managed to do so in such a way that the original plan of videoing the presentation with a group present to make it “feel” involving was dropped, in favour of a DVD and web-based presentation without the need for a live audience recording.

It only took about 10 minutes, and the process of convincing the group to shift its expectation occurred on the first slide, which I wanted to reflect the composition of the intended audience: it needed to be dynamic including the promise of a non-standard, not-boring “powerpoint”. So I chose a professional looping animation, a soundtrack from Garageband’s “news and broadcast” grouping, and a fade-out build so that a few moments after the soundtrack started, the animation would already be rolling.

Let’s first look at the slide as the group saw it, then I’ll explain what I actually did:

Here’s what the slide options in Keynote’s Inspector look like to do this:

A very simple-looking slide actually has more going on than first meets the eye.

Here’s the running order:

1. The soundtrack from Garageband called Celestial Body begins on my click. Simultaneously, the background animation Design 02 .mov file begins (2). At this point, the audience only sees black but hears the sound track.

3.  I slowly auto-dissolve out the black Shape that covers the slide so that when the animation is visible, it’s already in motion. I wanted this to represent dynamism in action, rather than a still shot that then moves into action. That looks like a slideshow, while I wanted something that looked unPowerpointy.

4. I then brought the title in with a build style which matched the direction of the background animation, again to give a sense of dynamism. The build style is called, Lens flare, and I asked it to last two seconds.

The deep impression I wanted to leave on the small audience was that this was not their father’s Powerpoint they were about to watch. I wanted to approach the kind of current affairs or professional level training schemes a very expensive contract would allow, even if we were doing the certificate on the cheap!

This first slide grabbed their attention, but I had to follow up with a second slide sequence to “sell” my concepts of shifting away from standard slide construction and presentation. Because the module writer was not present, I asked him to take two pictures of himself, one facing the camera, and the other side on, pointing at something off camera.

I then imported the pictures into Keynote and used the alpha masking to eliminate the background, leaving only the writer, Chris, present. From there, I had to use a little magic to demonstrate to the group what the slides would look like to the audience watching via DVD or the web. So what you see below was the slides constructed for this particular audience, not the final audience, to whom Chris would be speaking “live”.

I had to represent Chris somehow, rather than me reading his words. So what you see is my representation of how Chris would interact with the slides when we record the real deal for the real audience. Naturally, he would be speaking between words appearing on the screen, but speaking the words as they appeared. I’ve also included the opening title sequence once more to show how the next slides would appear.

Finally, I wanted the group to see how to illustrate references to books and journals. The following sequence shows Chris referring to a marketing publication published by the Tasmanian government. So we show Australia on a globe, swoosh in the publication’s cover (with a slant distortion courtesy of Picturesque), then show the URL for the publication’s pdf (which moves Chris out of picture), then “open” the publication and then highlight a specific section. Almost all of this can also be done in Powerpoint.

Now for your Keynote (or Powerpoint) first tip for 2010:

In order to remain creative, as I hope I have been (at least my intended audience thought so), you must keep flexing your creative muscles. This means not waiting until you have to do a presentation to practise using your preferred slideware’s gifts. Otherwise, you run the risk of using the same techniques over and over again, and not stretching yourself intellectually and creatively.

To do this for myself, I watch current affairs programs, TV documentaries and mainstream movies and try and emulate some of the effects I observe. These media often represent some of the most intriguing and engaging visual styles, as well as being what so many young people take for granted, making your standard Powerpoint or Keynote look quite dull.

Sometimes, it’s clear Keynote can’t duplicate the effects, but a reasonable facsimile can be attempted. This is one way to understand the software’s strengths and limitations (and also serves my secondary purpose of speaking with the Keynote developers to advance its capabilities for the next update). I’ll sometimes go back to existing slides and re-invigorate them with new effects, especially how I bring in text. In fact, I have a Keynote stack called “bringing in text” which is like a growing library of text effects I keep adding to as I gather new ideas.

I keep a similar stack for callouts and highlights where I can practise timings, animations and builds before exporting the slide effects into an upcoming presentation stack. Often these slides are half-finished because I can’t quite achieve the effect I want, and other times I’ll go back and try and complete the slide.

Now I know many in the presentation business will think this effort is unnecessary, but because I teach and give presentations, it’s important that I bring to my audiences new ways of thinking and doing, rather then merely learning how to understand Keynote’s operations. There are plenty of books around for that, but I want to go beyond the mechanics of Keynote and take it to another level that pairs Keynote’s abilities with audiences’ need for engaging and entertaining presentations.

I’ll keep adding more tips in the coming days, as I keep preparing for Macworld, and try to raise the bar higher.