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If You're a Teacher, You Can Be a Public Speaker

—Image courtesy of Brianna Crowley
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This is the first of a two-part series.

You've signed up to present at a conference. Maybe you’ve agreed to lead a professional-learning session at the start of your school year. Perhaps you’ve decided to overhaul your tried-and-true PowerPoints before starting the new school year. Congratulations! You are about to level up your presentations.

Are you nervous? That's OK—it just means you care! Giving a great presentation takes thoughtfulness, time, and practice. Accomplished educator and a dear friend Megan Allen posted some great tips a few weeks ago to help jumpstart your journey.

This two-part guide is a nuts-and-bolts approach to building a presentation that leaves a lasting impression. What follows are specific strategies and tips I’ve picked up not only reflecting on my own presentation experiences, but also learning from presentation gurus.

The BEST piece of advice I can give about presentations is that good teaching is good presenting. When you stand up to present, don't forget all the amazing tools in your teacher toolkit. The most compelling presenters use effective teaching practices to engage their audience.

Do Your Homework: Research Audience & Space

As with a football game, orchestra performance, or musical, the bulk of the work is not in the public performance. Instead, inspirational performances result from hours of preparation leading to the public display. Great presentations take a tremendous amount of preparation. Like we tell our students, if you do your homework, you will be prepared.

Brianna Crowley speaks at a conference of Pennsylvania ASCD members.
Brianna Crowley speaks at a conference of Pennsylvania ASCD members.
—Image courtesy of Brianna Crowley

Research your audience. Will you be speaking to a mixed audience of school board members and administrators? Will you be speaking to teachers who have had previous professional development on iPads? What grade levels are represented? What is the key theme of the conference? Once you know who may be in the room, take time to think about the perspectives of the audience. What evidence will move them to change? What stories will challenge them to think beyond their current scope? What questions will push them to go deeper with a concept? Your familiarity with the audience will inform how much time you need to invest in this step.

Understand the space. Ask questions about the setup of the room and the technology provided. Are people sitting in rows or at tables? Will you be on stage or able to move through the audience? Will the room be connected to a sound system? Does the projector have a plug that fits your device? Will the audience have access to reliable Wifi and have they been asked to bring technology?

If the devil is in the details, you want to be on top of him. A great presentation could be completely derailed by assumptions and unasked questions. In a recent session, some colleagues and I planned a gallery walk. Not knowing the texture of the walls, I showed up with masking tape, push pins, and Velcro strips ready for whatever surfaces were available. I used all three materials, so in this case, it paid to think ahead and be prepared!

Plan Ahead to Engage Your Audience

Plan for audience interaction. Once you have asked the logistical questions above, you can strategically plan for audience interaction. At a recent conference, the keynote presenter had the roomful of 300 educators divide into teams to play a Kahoot game. You should have heard the room erupt after each round when the winning teams were announced! No one was nodding off during this session. Audience interaction is "student engagement" for adults. We know it's important in the classroom, so we should transfer that skill to our adult learning spaces. With or without technology, plan to have your audience interact with you throughout the presentation.

Create a feedback loop. After a recent presentation, I emailed a six-question Google Form survey to the organizers and also sent the link via Twitter to the audience participants. This survey asked questions like “On a scale from 1 to 5, please indicate the degree to which the time was used wisely and to its best impact.” An open-ended question asked “Please briefly describe the most powerful aspect of this presentation,” followed by “Briefly explain what components you would suggest improving.”

I wanted to know what parts of the presentation were most useful and how I could improve for next time. Seeking feedback reinforces the message that you are a learner and you respect your audience. Feedback also provides a valuable perspective on the success of your planning, preparation, and delivery. An important reflection for every presentation: What were your goals? And were the goals met? It’s difficult to know unless you ask those questions.

When speaking to a small audience, you could reserve time at the end of your session to ask volunteers to share out one take-away and one question. If speaking to a large audience, you could use tools like Poll Everywhere or Twitter to grab responses. If your presentation is to administrators or school board members in your district, be sure to send a follow-up email that includes a convenient way for them to provide feedback to you (maybe a survey link or a few quick questions within the email). The feedback loop will vary depending on the context and tools available, but it is a vital step regardless.

Rehearse, Revise, Repeat: Sound Natural, Not Nervous

Write out a script for your presentation. I have my students do this in the "notes" section underneath PowerPoint or Google Presentation slides, but you can put them anywhere. You could even use a voice-to-text app to speak your script into written text.

The point is, write out what you want to actually say to your audience. Read (or re-read) what you’ve written out aloud to hear awkward words and identify any places where the verbal script is too long for any accompanying visuals. Be aware of transitions.

Finally, practice using your written script only for a reference as you advance through the presentation. DO NOT MEMORIZE THE SCRIPT! The point of practicing is to become so familiar with your content that your visual aid acts as a reminder for what you want to say. You may not recite your script perfectly, but that's the point. Your audience will disengage if you are more focused on reciting something than having a conversation with them. The verbal part of your presentation must feel conversational and natural. It usually takes practice to appear casual and comfortable.

Think about your presentation as teaching, not lecturing. While impressive lectures are interesting and thought-provoking, they don’t ask for the audience to interact or co-create their experience. Contrast this with an engaging and collaborative classroom where great teachers look to empower student voice and promote discussion. Your level of audience interaction during the presentation will depend on the purpose and length of the presentation, but be sure to intentionally plan for the audience to engage.

Next week, in part two of this article, I will provide specific strategies for creating an engaging visual aid. Until then, please include in the comments any presentation tips you have picked up along the way. Let's collaboratively build a rich resource for educators to find presentation inspiration!

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