How to Create More Engaging Conference Presentations

Have you had the experience of attending professional conferences where you experienced death by PowerPoint—a presentation in which the person at the front of the room has too much text on too many slides? Often, the presenter then proceeds to read to the audience everything that is already written on the slides. This can soon become very dull indeed. But what if that presenter is you? How can those of us who find ourselves at the front of the room make our presentations more interesting and engaging to our participants?

Presentation Zen

One step you can take is to make your presentations more visual and less text heavy. Over the past few years, I’ve made a lot of changes in the slides that I use when giving presentations at professional conferences. I try now, whenever possible, to use slides that contain strong images and only a few words.

I find that although our field is largely concerned with literacy and helping our own students read, in general we’re not very literate ourselves when it comes to basic concepts of graphic design.

My approach to presentations has been strongly influenced by a book by Garr Reynolds called Presentation Zen. In his book, Reynolds argues for the following:

  • Use strong images in your presentations
  • Use less text
  • Fill the entire slide with your image; don’t use tiny images here and there.
  • Try to focus on only one idea per slide. It’s better to have a larger number of slides, with just one idea on each one, than to fill your slides with many different ideas.

In a presentation available on SlideShare, Reynolds cites research on the brain by John Medina emphasizing that human listeners have finite attention spans. He points out that the brain is wired to notice change and things that are different. If you change your slides more frequently, that will help keep your audience involved. Medina also states that vision is the strongest of our senses. By using slides that are visually interesting, we help keep people engaged in what we are saying.

Constructing meaning

Of course, much of what we do in our profession is heavily text-based, so this approach won’t work for all presentations, but even if your talk includes lots of text, you can still break things up with occasional photos in between sections. It is fairly easy to find royalty-free images online that you can use in your presentations by giving attribution to the photographer. Be sure that your use of the image isn’t violating anyone’s copyright. Think of the concept that you are trying to get across, then think how that concept might be expressed visually.

For example, when talking about the idea of constructing meaning, you might show a photo of a child working with building blocks. If you are on a panel and you would like to express appreciation to fellow panelists or organizers, you might find an image of someone applauding. To show the idea of developing autonomy in reading, you might display a photo of a child learning to ride a bicycle.

Developing reader autonomy

A drawback, of course, is that image files are often quite large, so a presentation that is full of images is soon going to balloon to an unwieldy file size. To alleviate this problem, you want to optimize your images by reducing the file size. To do this, open the photo using image-processing software such as Photoshop or a similar program that came with your computer. Determine the size (in pixels) of your presentation software.

For example a basic PowerPoint slide is in a 4:3 ratio. That is, the slide is set up horizontally in landscape format, with 4 units across the top and 3 units down. The resolution of most computer screens these days is set at 72 dots per inch (dpi). Your software will let you cut or crop the image to change the shape. For a basic PowerPoint slide, if you set the size to 960 pixels wide by 725 pixels high, the image will fit perfectly on a PowerPoint slide. So you are probably making your image smaller in size by cropping it. Then, when you save it, don’t use the highest resolution, rather, use a medium or medium-high setting. This will further reduce the file size so that your presentation isn’t too large if you choose to email it or post it online.

Adding text over the photo

Once you have optimized your photo and saved it, you can then insert it onto your slide. Use a text box overlay to add text to help explain your concept. Experiment with the location, size, and color of the text to maximize legibility. You may need to slightly darken or lighten the area behind the text to ensure that your words are visible.

In a subsequent blog posting, we’ll look at where to find royalty-free images and how to use them while giving appropriate credit to the copyright holders.

About Joe McVeigh

Joe McVeigh
Joe McVeigh works independently in the field of English language teaching as a consultant, author, and teacher trainer. For over 25 years he has taught at universities in the United States, including the California Institute of Technology, the University of Southern California, and the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College. He has lived and worked in countries including China, India, Chile, the United Kingdom, Hungary, and Saudi Arabia. He has taught students from more than 50 countries. He is co-author with Ann Wintergerst of Tips for Teaching Culture: Practical Approaches to Intercultural Communication (Pearson Longman) and a co-author with Jennifer Bixby of two books in the Q: Skills for Success series (Oxford University Press). In addition to writing and consulting, Joe speaks at conferences and workshops, and maintains a blog and website on issues of interest to teachers of ESL. You can also find him on Twitter: @JoeMcVeigh. Joe is a past chair of TESOL's Intensive English Programs Interest Section and served on the TESOL Board of Directors from 1995-1998. He lives with his wife and son in Middlebury, Vermont, USA.
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One Response to How to Create More Engaging Conference Presentations

  1. Becky says:

    Yes, yes, death by power point is real! Let’s have engaging presentations full of meaningful images. Make a presentation effective and take time to plan it out.

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