An unusually practical post

This year’s twenty weeks of teaching came to a close on Monday night. While I can’t deny that having my Monday evenings (and Sunday afternoons and evenings too) back is very welcome, I’ve enjoyed teaching a great deal this year.

I started teaching with OLL (as it was then- it’s now Lifelong Learning) in 2005. I taught a course on Elizabeth I and another on the Six Wives of Henry VIII. The room I was to teach in didn’t have PowerPoint facilities. It was in the Classics Dept, where I’d studied, and they didn’t use such things there, at least not then. Nor did I have any slides for the ancient projector. I was later informed that I could borrow slides overnight from the Fine Art library but I would have to return them promptly in the morning. This was no use to me was I lived and worked out of town and wasn’t in a position to make a twenty mile round trip detour, within their office hours (not early) and still arrive at work on time. I put pictures on the handouts and printed them in colour (at my expense- the office would only do black and white). It was just about enough.

PowerPoint was soon available in all the rooms- the university deciding the upgrade was needed, thankfully. Much as people lambast “death by PowerPoint” I can assure you that it’s a much slower and less colourful death without it. I’m actually very fond of PowerPoint, although there is a certain skill to using it. I hope I’ve if not mastered it, at least become proficient. I’ve certainly learned from my mistakes.

Gillian’s Top PowerPoint* Tips

Some of these will be more relevant to those teaching historical topics but most are universal.

  • Simple designs are best. I tend to use plain white backgrounds with an ornament in the upper right and left-hand corners or a pale, graduated background colour. Avoid patterned backgrounds, flashing text, fancy transitions, overly bright colours. It’s the content of the slide that’s important, not the slide itself. That said, don’t be afraid to use the occasional flourish.
  • Keep the text to a minimum. I used to be guilty of putting loads of text on slides. This not only creates more work for you but it’s boring. Your audience will stop listening to you and read the text instead and if they do that, your presence is rendered pointless. Why not just email it to them and have done? Useful text on slides: names, dates, quotations. Don’t be tempted to fill all the space.
  • Lead the presentation, don’t be led by it. Anyone can delivery a prepared talk, the skill is in responding to your audience. I try to encourage participation and discussion and sometimes this means that it’s better to skip ahead in response to something a student brings up, or even to skip back to a previous slide. Don’t be afraid to take the few seconds to find the right slide to facilitate further discussion.
  • Choose your images thoughtfully. There are a plethora of images for some of my classes (e.g. Cleopatra, Henry VIII, Marie Antoinette). Be a little savvy in choosing the ones you want to use. My students don’t need to see every painting of Elizabeth I I can lay my electronic hands on. Pick ones that back up your point (the Armada propaganda portraits), are chronologically relevant (the earliest surviving portrait- the Lady Elizabeth at thirteen years old) or interesting in their own right (the Sieve Portrait). These images invite discussion but help to keep it from veering off at tangents. If relevant, use non-contemporary images, just remember tell your students when the image was created- it’s not always obvious!
  • Use the notes facility in PowerPoint. You don’t necessarily want to read from this while delivering your presentation but having the notes there will make life much easier if you revisit the presentation at a later date. Don’t underestimate your ability to forget the significance of a certain picture or the year someone was born. I prefer to use paper notes when delivering the class but these can be difficult to match to slides later. Also, in my case, they can just be difficult to find later.

*Initially I used OpenOffice’s presentation software which does the job nicely and for free. I’m sure there are several alternatives which have more or less the same functionality as PowerPoint. I really like Microsoft Office though. Sorry.

Do you use presentation software? What tips would you give?

2 thoughts on “An unusually practical post

  1. Helen

    These are great tips, particularly about using the notes facility, which I usually just ignore. My tip is not so much about the presentation software but about choosing your screensaver carefully. Imagine that after your presentation people ask you questions, and while you are giving them insightful and intelligent answers your screensaver kicks in. Do you want this to be, say, shooting stars? Or a slide show of you and all your friends and family looking drunk and stupid? Be warned, I have seen this happen!

    1. Gillian Post author

      That’s a good point. I don’t use a screensaver at the moment but I did once fail to turn on the the plug point so half way through the class my laptop battery died, it went into hibernation and it took about ten slow minutes to get it back on again.

      I also had a student tell me I should get to class earlier so that when he arrived he wouldn’t need to look at anything that was on my desktop as it was clear there were things I’d rather they didn’t see. I can only think that he assumed the “Harlots book” folder was not historical research and writing but something altogether more sinister. He hinted that there were photos on screen though which was a little odd as the only visible photos were innocuous landscapes used as a background.


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