pm@olin: Presentations (Class 9)


  1. Understand what makes a presentation compelling.
  2. Practice storytelling techniques.
  3. Have frameworks to consider presentations in.
  4. Understand the range of presentation types.

Optional Reading

  1. TED Talks
  2. Onlyness at TEDxHouston: Resonate (Nilofer Merchant)
  3. slide:ology (Duarte)
  4. Presentation Zen (Reynolds)
  5. Leadership Presence (Lubar, Halpern)

Whiteboard and markers


Watch a talk — 20 Minutes

I opened the class by having us watch a talk. In this case, I picked Nilofer Merchant’s talk from TEDxHouston on Onlyness. I picked this because: I’m familiar with it, I liked it, I could pull out a lot of specific good things, and I guessed my students hadn’t seen it.

For the first 20 minutes we watched the talk together and individually took notes on what stood out to us. Some of the questions I prompted with: “What was particularly effective?” “What surprised you the most?” “How is this similar/different to your favorite talk?”

Discussion Presentations & Frameworks- 40 minutes

After the video concluded, I prompted with more questions to see what students took away form the presentation.

I asked students about their favorite moments (how do you get rid of the staplers?!) and things that were stood out while they were watching (chasing a butt around).

We started to group things on the board for what we thought was particularly effective. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but four major ones:

1) Good content. The message was important and also authentic.
2) Left us wondering, felt relatable (the staplers. what do you do with them?)
3) Related personally to the audience (positive jokes about Texans for a presentation in Texas).
4) A little bit of humor.

At this point, one student pointed out that all of the elements we’d pointed out were related very closely to storytelling and the skills required to be a good storyteller. I’ve frequently thought of presenter as storyteller, but it was nice to organically reach the conclusion. An interesting piece was that the only bit my students viewed as a “negative” they felt had been shoved in for sake of a storyline. In that case, they valued authenticity over storyline.

I used that as a chance to introduce the “PRES” framework that is taught by the Ariel group — about leadership presence The acronym stands for Present, Reaching Out, Expressive, and Self Knowing.

In contrast, I pointed out that a historically common framework was “tell them what you’re going to say, tell them, and tell them what you said” — a talk version of the five paragraph essay. They laughed at me, but I did think it was important to point out that a story isn’t the right way to share absolutely everything. Sometimes you are conveying facts.

Story Telling Practice — 45 minutes

After this, we practiced telling stories. The students broke into pairs, and told a short story to their partner.

Then we went through a few iterations: tell your story without using words (act it out), tell your story using as much voice modulation as possible (both cadence and volume) and tell your story with a specific audience in mind.

The stories definitely got better as we went through the iterations. Some students (rightly) pointed out that telling the same story over and over may have helped more than the specific tools. That said, I think it was worthwhile practice.

Presentation Work — 15 minutes

This section is short because we abandoned it fairly quickly. I had each student bring a topic they were interested in presenting on, and then tried to teach my process for developing a talk.

I had them expand their idea to see if there was anything else in the space that was more interesting. Because many of the presentations had to be on a specific topic, this didn’t work as well as it does for me when I’m creating a new talk.

We did some expansion, and then students started working on expanding their primary point. As questions came up, we abandoned working in favor of me showing a wide array of talks.

Sharing Talks — 30 minutes

We concluded with a walkthrough of some of my talks. I showed my Olin Senior Capstone project, some of the “pitch decks” we created for Startup Lockdown, and some presentations I’d done at Microsoft (no confidential info).

Honestly, this was probably the most interesting and useful part of the class.

Most of the students had never seen a PowerPoint that primarily consisted of bullet points and text (how?!) and assumed that everyone was making beautiful slides for their internal work status reports. Not so.

Even with the pitch decks (crafted by a former VC and former consultant) they were horrified. I have great respect for the people who made the decks, and I trust that they’re the right form for the situation! I don’t know how to make them, but I wish I did. My students struggled to believe another way of presenting was possible.

This exercise was one of the first times I felt like I’d *significantly challenged* the way students thought about a topic. The feeling in the room was much more visceral. It’s unfortunate that I just learned this now, because I wish I would have been more controversial, sooner.

Selected Changes / Notes

1. I forgot to take photos of the whiteboards. I think that means I’m getting more comfortable and this is becoming more routine, but it sure makes it hard to write things up after.
2. One way of teaching is to figure out what the “sacred cows” are and challenge those. It seems to open up more emotion and discussion.