“In 1930 the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, in an effort to alleviate the effects of the…
…The Great Depression, passed the… Anyone? …the tariff bill. The Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act, which…”
This clip from the 1986 comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a masterclass in failing to connect with the audience. And yet, it’s a scene that still plays out in classrooms, meetings, and workshops worldwide over three decades later.
“This lecture-heavy presentation style is something we’ve all fallen into because it’s easy and expedient,” says Nate Pinsky. As a former high school math teacher turned Poll Everywhere engineer, Pinsky has a unique perspective on adult and adolescent teaching techniques. “We assume the fastest way to get a point across is just to say it. After all, if you tell someone something then they instantly know it, right?”
Not exactly. In a recent workshop titled, “Some Stuff Teachers Do To Get Bored High Schoolers Engaged That Might Work For Bored Professionals, Too” PollEvian Nate Pinsky laid out some small moves you can use in your own presentations to increase engagement and make ideas stick.
“Lecture: the transfer of information from the notes of the lecturer to the notes of the student without passing through the minds of either.”
– Steve Reinhart
Who is doing all the thinking – all the work – in that Bueller clip?
The professor. His students are completely zoned out. If you need someone to remember something about the The Hawley-Smoot Tariff – or any other topic – Pinsky has three fundamental ideas you should keep in mind:
1. People are more likely to remember what you teach if asked to process their thoughts and ideas actively
2. People are more likely to process their thoughts and ideas actively when they are discussing them with others
3. People often need help discussing their thoughts and ideas effectively
As Pinsky concluded, “To engage participants in your presentation, help them talk to each other about it.” Below are six scenarios many presenters will encounter. Each one highlights a different participation structure you can use to help facilitate discussion.
“Only dialogue, which requires critical thinking, is also capable of generating critical thinking. Without dialogue there is no communication, and without communication there can be no true education.”
– Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
You are starting a seminar and realize you don’t know how much the audience already knows about your topic
Fist-to-five will give you this information. This participation structure has each participant place their hand to their chest and indicate one to five (or a closed fist) with their fingers. “I like having have the fist against the chest, rather than up in the air, because if someone isn’t feeling confident about their response then they don’t have to advertise it to the room,” Nate said. “It’s a safe way express what you’re thinking, while giving the presenter a quick check of the room.”
In the above scenario, a room full of fives would need less explanation about your topic than one full of ones or twos. This participation structure is especially helpful when you’re presenting to a group you have not met before, and therefore have no prior knowledge of their familiarity.
You are in front of a large audience and want to hear their feedback on a complex question or problem
Here Pinsky recommended turn-and-talk, his go-to participation structure for helping people actively engage with a topic. Calling on people out of the blue can be jarring and yield several half-baked responses. Instead, have people turn to their neighbor and discuss between them what was just presented. This short discussion helps both participants develop their responses, and gives them a little boost of confidence before sharing their idea with the room (or at least having someone else share it).
“In several cases,” Pinsky added, “even the most hesitant groups will take the opportunity to chat, especially if they’re bored. If you just say, ‘What do people think?’ chances are you’re going to get crickets. Maybe someone will chime in, but it doesn’t guarantee everyone will think about the question.”
You are planning a presentation and want to know what attendees took away from it
Here, consider an exit ticket at the end of your presentation. Exit tickets give participants a chance to reflect on what they learned during the presentation, and to communicate that knowledge back to you, the presenter.
Exit tickets are typically one- or two-question surveys shared in an email or hard copy. However, Pinsky used Poll Everywhere to facilitate his exit ticket – What is one thing from this session that you can use in an upcoming presentation or meeting? – thereby letting the audience respond using their phones.
Regardless of method, the data generated by an exit ticket has two uses. First, it tells the presenter whether the audience learned what they needed to learn. Second, it can be used at the start of the next presentation as a teaching aid. “I’ll sometimes say, ‘Here are some things I noticed from your responses’, or point out common mistakes, then start a conversation around that,” said Pinsky.
You are presenting to a small group and want a sense of everyone’s opinions
Instead of calling on a few people to explain their opinions in depth, Pinsky recommends you level the playing field using a whiparound. In a whiparound, you go around the room, asking participants for a quick one- or two-word summary of their opinions. This is a great way to get people engaged in your topic from the outset.
“A whiparound can be hard to pull off with a large group, such as in a lecture hall,” said Pinsky. “In those cases, what I’ll do is combine whiparound with turn-and-talk. I have people break into small groups and discuss for a moment. Then I whiparound to someone from each group and have that spokesperson summize their point.” You could also try a word cloud.
“It also helps if everyone is seated in a circle.”
You are introducing a new tool and want to ensure participants know how to use it
Enter the what-if scenario. This is a consolidation exercise. It takes the abstract ideas or instructions you just presented and grounds them in relatable, concrete examples. This participation structure can – and should – be combined with turn-and-talk, fist-to-five, and others to help further solidify the concept in peoples’ heads. It’s also the backbone of this article.
“A proper what-if scenario challenges people to test the boundaries of what they learned,” added Pinsky, “and lets them practice applying that knowledge in a safe, controlled environment. Otherwise, you may end up dropping a shiny new tool in their lap only to have them shoot themselves in the proverbial foot.”
You are presenting a challenging concept and want to help the audience reach the conclusion together
This participation structure is more complex than the previous ones. Instead of something you add to an existing presentation, this is a way of organizing the presentation itself. Pinsky calls it noticings and wonderings, a technique he learned from The Math Forum.
Start your presentation with something visual, such as a photo, passage, or quote. Then, give minimal explanation before asking attendees to write down what they noticed about the item presented, and what questions they have about it.
From here, you can take this presentation structure in a few different directions. Participants could continue to unpack this riddle individually, they could break into small groups and compare notes (turn-and-talk), or you could go around the room and start a group discussion (whiparound). Either way, your goal here is to guide the discussion towards the desired solution or insight without stating it outright. The audience may even teach you something new.