How school makes us bad presenters.

Updated: Nov 25, 2020

I was a teacher for thirteen years. For seven of those years, I taught basic Economics to high school seniors. Like many of my colleagues, I occasionally assigned projects that required students to present, and like many of my colleagues, I had almost no idea what I was doing.

Presentation Skills as Software Skills

Like most of the world, I thought of slides as an integral part of every presentation. Teaching my students to use slides was my duty; I was preparing them for the working world. I taught my students a few slide software basics. They jumped in and taught themselves how to select colorful slide backgrounds and add fancy animations and sound effects. As happens in the working world, the whole process of presentation development became horribly slide heavy.

Slides as The Presentation

I thought the gem of my presentation teaching was the 6x6 rule: include no more than six bullet points per slide with no more than six words per point. Knowing I would grade their slides like a written report, most of my students figured out how to pack all the Economics knowledge they could into their 36-words-per-slide allotment. Instead of thinking of their presentation as a type of conversation and their slides as visual aids, my students learned that slides are primary and should drive the whole presentation experience. They learned to think of their slides as a pseudo-document.

Presentations as Info Dumps

Although I assigned my students to present, in my mind I was simply teaching my students Economics in a novel way. In grading their presentations, I emphasized subject matter knowledge.

I taught them nothing about the true nature of presentations as a persuasive medium. They didn't learn that empathy and awareness are foundational.

I instead taught them, quite unintentionally, that a presentation was a performance in which one shows off their knowledge. An 'A' was earned by subject expertise.

Unlearning What You've Learned

Not every teacher teaches presentation skills the way I did, but I am making an educated guess that your exposure to presentations in school yielded similar misguided learning outcomes in you. I'm hoping that this little post not only prompts you to question what you learned about presentations in school, but challenges you to rethink how you prepare for and deliver presentations altogether. The first step on your journey to becoming an truly impactful speaker is recognizing that the old path is the wrong path.