The Wisdom of a 2 Slide Talk

How in presenting (and maybe teaching) less can be more.

January 28, 2016

The best talk that I’ve been to this academic year was one where the presenter had 2 slides.

What is the average number of slides per 1 hour presentation?

I gave an hour long talk last week (to a roomful of pathologists - which is a different story), and my deck had 32 slides. Could it be that this was 30 slides too many?

Why did this 2 slide talk work so well?

20 Minutes:

The presenter talked to the room (maybe about 40 or 50 people) at the beginning of the talk for about 20 minutes. Those 20 minutes were both narratively cohesive and information rich. The presenter had some thinking and information that he wanted to get across, and he was not shy in commanding our full attention for this period of time. He did not stop to ask us questions or solicit feedback during these first 20 minutes. Rather, the presenter had a story that he had come to tell - and our job as the audience was to listen, absorb and think.

We have a big debate going on in higher ed about the future of the lecture. Some argue that the lecture is dead, as what should be occurring in our classrooms is all active and hands-on learning. Others claim that learning to listen and process a lecture is a key element of any rigorous education. The truth is that lecturing and active learning are not mutually exclusive.  Well-crafted lectures can be an integral element of a active learning teaching strategy. The lecture / no-lecture argument is sort of like the nature / nurture argument - in that it is a debate that largely misses the point. We don’t need to create exclusive categories and oppositional viewpoints when it comes to creating effective educational strategies.

What this 2 slide talk did show me, however, is that maybe it is good to stop lecturing after 20 minutes (in most cases).  Everyone who has every watched a TED Talk knows that 20 minutes is about the sweet spot of impact and attention. What you do with the remaining time depends on what you are trying to accomplish.  It may be appropriate to have the audience do something active, and then jump right back into a 20 minute lecture. Alternatively, the rest of the time can be spent accomplishing some real work (maybe in small teams), debating the points, and asking questions.

In this case, the presenter left the remaining 40 minutes for questions and discussion. This might seem like a long time, but a full 40 minutes of discussion allowed lots of ideas to see daylight. Nobody was rushed. None of us worried that we were taking away time from the presenters content. Lots of people in the room were able to express complex thoughts and questions. The conversation in the room was led and moderated by the presenter, but people were listening to and talking to each other.

Ideas Over Content:

The 2 slides that the presenter showed were well-crafted and thoughtfully designed. What they were not was information dense. The slides expressed key ideas. The language was simple and direct. No attempt was made to include all possible information. The slide content was mostly text - but the text was concise and impactful.

Having less content on the slides enabled the presenter to do a couple of things. First, he was able to talk about the ideas he was communicating without reading from the slides. The content on the slides was the springboard for his narrative, as well as the subsequent discussion. What the presenter said in his presentation, and during the discussion time, complemented and added value to the slides.

Second, having less content on the slides opened up a space for the people in the room to put forth their ideas. A minimalist approach to idea sharing can, if the ideas presented are powerful and well-articulated, encourage even greater idea generation. The presenter was confident enough not to try to suck up all the intellectual oxygen in the room. He presented his core ideas, but provided plenty of space for the audience to challenge and build on his thinking.

Trusting the people in the room is one of the hardest jobs of a presenter and a teacher. We need to trust that those coming to hear what we are saying are prepared and equipped to understand the information. We need to trust that they will listen well, and then be willing to actively engage in the ideas that are presented. Too often we design our presentations (and maybe our teaching) to account for possible worst-case scenarios. We load our presentations (and maybe teaching) with too much content.  We don’t provide adequate and unhurried space for debate, conversation, and reflection. We assume that it is our job to “deliver” the information, where in reality we should be emphasizing the most important ideas.

Would you be willing to go to a 2 slide mode of presenting?

Could you see yourself giving 40 minutes of an hour long presentation (or class) to discussion and conversation?

Have you been able to find a way to worry less about covering content, and more about communicating and creating new ideas?



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