Presentation Skills Lessons From Teaching College History

by Gilda Bonanno

Posted on Tuesday 27th of September 2011

Presentation Skills Lessons From Teaching College History

One of my first jobs after graduate school was as an instructor at a community college. My course load included teaching American History 102 (1865-present) on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 8:00-8:50 A.M. It was a required course for most of the 35 students and history was not their major. So my challenge was how to communicate to the students while keeping them awake and interested.

That experience taught me many lessons about effective presentation skills - lessons I still use today in my own presentations and when I teach presentation skills. And these same lessons can help you become a more effective presenter:

Slides and Visual Aids are Optional

Those were low-tech days – just me and the chalkboard, and occasionally a few pull-down maps hooked onto the chalkboard. I learned that I was the presentation and that any visual aids were only there to help, but not required. And no visual aid could make up for a lack of preparation on my part.

Where is it written that presentations must include slides? If the slides have compelling, memorable visuals, then they can help the audience understand and remember the information. Unfortunately, most slides are endless lists of bullet points in small font; those kinds of slides actually hinder the audience's understanding and even distract their attention away from you.

Stories Capture Attention

I learned that it is possible to capture the attention of a potentially bored or distracted audience – yes, even 35 teenagers and young adults in a required class at 8 AM on a Friday morning. In order to make class interesting, I told stories that made the "boring names and dates" come alive and helped them see the historical figures as real people instead of presenting a tedious list of facts to be memorized.

Stories work even in a business setting. Try sharing a quick story of how a customer uses your product or how your new software helped a specific department get work done faster.

Energy and Enthusiasm are Contagious

I had to be more energetic than the students and I didn't drink coffee! It helped that I loved my subject and loved teaching - and most students responded positively. Even if they didn't come to love the subject like I did, they could at least appreciate and respect my enthusiasm for it.

Are you excited about your topic? Are you energetic? While it's not always possible to love the topic you are presenting, your energy and enthusiasm will help engage your audience.

Get the Audience Involved

In order to keep the students engaged and interested, I asked questions, walked up and down the aisles, had them work together in pairs and small groups and encouraged their questions.

Try using some of these techniques with your audience. You can also ask them for examples, give them an exercise to work on individually or ask for a volunteer to come forward and help you with a demonstration.

Respect the Audience

I realized on the first day that I had to earn the respect of the students. They didn't care about my credentials. It wasn't about me; it was about them and how I could help meet their learning needs. I learned not to talk down to my audience or to insult them. I learned not to lie if I didn't know the answer – but to admit it and find the answer for them before the next class. I met them at their level, showed interest in their lives and didn't pretend to know a lot about their world or their music.

You can show your respect for your audience by taking the time to prepare and by not speaking for longer than expected. You can also make it clear why your message is relevant to them.

These Lessons are Transferable

The greatest compliment I received from students was that after taking my class, they realized history was interesting, relevant and even fun. And some who thought they were "stupid" at history realized they were not stupid and that they could understand and "do" history.

I transferred those early lessons to my current career, where I work with corporate professionals, entrepreneurs and business owners and enable them to realize that they're not "stupid" at presentation skills – and with practice, they can learn to be more effective presenters.

The next time you have to present, whatever your topic or environment, try these lessons to keep your audience engaged and involved.

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