On Thursday I attended a prize-giving presentation held by the technical communications people in my department. I was there because my group project team gave the best presentation of our year, according to our seniors, and we were required to do it again for the first years. The added joy of this event was that I didn’t have to do anything, as I was not one of the two in my group giving the presentation. In effect, I got all of the glory (well, cake) and just had to sit there and look smart for an hour.
At this event I watched a dozen first years giving 5 minute presentations on a technical subject of their choice. This is something all first years have to do, and of all the 160 individual presentations, these 12 were deemed to be the best. That got me thinking, how do you define “best” when describing presentations. Among the 12, I saw different styles, paces, slideshow efforts, hand gestures making them each unique. But why is their particular brand of uniqueness better than someone else?
There are the obvious cornerstones of presentation in my mind: don’t look bored, speak clearly, don’t have any annoying habits that makes the listener want to scratch a chalk board to dull their pain. Beyond those simple things, everything else is open to interpretation. The common specifications we get in uni are pretty redundant when you look at real world examples.
Whilst people like Barack Obama look smart, talking slowly and proverbially with an impressive range of vocabulary, similar awe inspiring moments are achieved by Steve Jobs, who is more to the point and famously wears a causal black turtle neck and jeans. Other speakers are much faster, much more lively with movement and hand motions and remain just as effective. Then, of course, there is the content of the speech. Obama and most other politicians are quite serious, which is fine, but I am much more enthralled by listening to Paul Merton or Stephen Fry on “Just a Minute” and the comical styles they bring, whilst still getting the important points across. One thing that really annoys me is the outline we are told to give at the beginning, where we describe the direction our presentation will take to the audience. While I see it’s point, I can’t think of a notable person doing it in real life and really can’t agree that it adds merit to our work.
Whilst we are told to go more towards the Obama approach to public speaking, it really does seem unintuitive when applying this model to lecturers. Fact is, lecturers that are too serious and force amusement to wait in the car whilst they are presenting are the ones that are seen less favourably on SOLE. While the basics are taught well, is there really an appropriate way of grading someones “amount of movement”, “intensity of hand gestures” or “level of eye contact”. It is rather like dress sense, different styles work well for different people. While my style can be described as “no sense of colour co-ordination” by all the leading fashion magazines, if Kate Moss were to steal it from me, it would be Nouveau Chic *insert another french word*.
I think presenting is an art, and therefore should be treated with the same creative diversity as art. There is no single rule that explains why all the people we see on TED are so incredible at what they do. We each have an individual way of presenting ourselves in terms of style, language and personality, and those things should bubble through into how we act in front of a projector. Trying to adapt to this idea of what a presentation is supposed to be is (quite literally, in this case) an engineer trying to produce a work of art. This is one situation where we should tell mathematics and rationality to take a break and tell amusement he can finally join us in the lecture theatre.
Thanks for reading,