The Art  & Science of Making Presentations


The truth is I suck at delivering classroom lectures.  Or to reframe that in a potentially less career-damaging light: delivering classroom lectures that engage and inspire students to learn is a challenge.  But really, the truth is, I suck at it. This doesn’t necessarily make me a bad teacher.  What I lack in presentation skills, I make up for in designing and facilitating assignments that foster students’ critical thinking, communication, and team-building skills. At least that’s my story, and I’ve been sticking to it.

 I’m not convinced that lectures are all that important in transferring knowledge considering what I’ve been reading lately about attention.  The average adult attention span is somewhere around 15-20 minutes…or that’s what it was in the 1940’s when those types of studies were being done by Mackworth1.  With all the distracting technology and information at our fingertips today, I suspect that number has declined drastically. Indeed, there is research out there that indicates our brains are being “rewired” by this abundance of information.2  Moreover, several recent studies have reported that exposure to video games and TV has a detrimental and long-term effect on children’s attention spans.3,4  People want to be entertained and stimulated and if they’re not, attention wanes.  And let’s face it – phonology isn’t the most exciting topic on the planet.

Long story short: I suck at delivering lectures, I need to get better at it, and I am curious about how effective this mode of teaching can be compared to other methods, so one of my goals for this academic year is to improve my presentation skills. I’ve read a couple of helpful books on the topic this summer: Life is a Series of Presentations5, and Presentationzen6.

To Tony Jeary, author of Life is a Series of Presentations, a presentation isn’t limited to a certain speaking situation in a classroom or meeting room.  Jeary contends that our every interaction with another person is a presentation of some sort that can (and should be) carefully considered and controlled to get the results you want.  I found the chapter on persuasion particularly interesting.  He reviewed research in the area of social psychology on topics such as social proof, the halo effect, social loafing, and the reciprocation rule. It’s a good chapter to read if you’re a sales person, or if you want to learn some of these tricks of manipulation so you won’t fall prey to them. This book was geared more towards the business, management, and sales crowd than the academic crowd; however, his ideas expanded my perception of what a presentation is.  Overall, I found it an interesting read and it has helped me better construct my messages in some of my day-to-day interactions.  The self-help vibe was a bit cheesy at times, but there is good information to be had.  If you want to explore his ideas or learn more, check out Jeary’s website.

Presentationzen was totally yummy.  I read it cover to cover in a few sittings and I have have revisited it several times this summer. It’s a fabulous resource. The visuals are stunning. (It’s a picture book!) Its focus is on how to design visual presentations that attract people’s attention, help them understand, and help them retain the information. I loved everything about this book: the philosophy, the artwork, the quotes, the layout, the examples, the emphasis on simplicity and beauty and creativity and solitude and meditation. It was right up my alley. I discovered so much that I’ve been doing wrong in my presentation design and I’m looking forward to implementing changes this year. Reynolds also has a website you can visit if you want to learn more.  I’ll leave you with a couple of my favorite quotes from the book.



Emptiness which is conceptually liable to be mistaken for sheer nothingness is in fact the reservoir of infinite possibility.


–Daisetz Suzuki



Others inspire us, information feeds us, practice improves our performance, but we need quiet time to figure things out, to emerge with new discoveries, to unearth original answers.


–Ester Buchholz



Such power there is in clear-eyed self-restraint.


–James Russell



  1. Mackworth, J. F. (1969). Vigilance and Habituation: A Neuropychological Approach. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
  2. Carr, N. (2010). The web shatters focus, rewires brains. Wired. Retrieved 2010-8-5.
  3. Swing, E., Gentile, D. A., Anderson, C.A., & Walsh, D. A. (2010). Television and video game exposure and the development of attention problems.  Pediatrics, 126, 214-221.
  4. Christakis, D. A., Zimmerman, F.J., DiGiuseppe, D. L., McCarty, C. A. (2004). Early television exposure and subsequent attentional problems in children. Pediatrics, 113, 708-713.
  5. Jeary, T., Dower, K., & Fishman, J.E. (2004).  Life Is a Series of Presentations: Eight Ways to Inspire, Inform, and Influence Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime. New York: Fireside.
  6. Reynolds, G. (2008). Presentationzen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery.  Berkeley: New Riders.