The Medium Really WAS the Message

Asked to reflect back on a presentation I have given in the past, it struck me that my most recent presentation would likely be most instructive in terms of helping me bring up my game. Now, as teachers, we make presentations all the time. For the purposes of this post, I mean a presentation in the sense of making it to a group of adults whom I have to convince of something. I would go further in the reflection process here by adding that I am aware of how many of my posts start out with a sort of self-styled how I am already doing such a good job theme. Having been involved in curriculum design for a number of years and having studied art for three years (albeit at the secondary school level) I agree with Frank Curkovic that once you start seeing things with a discerning eye you can’t “unsee” them. My love of cinema and the writing of Joseph Campbell rounds this all of for me and zooms in on the narrative of art, advertising, photography, you name it, the human condition.

In his blog post, What is Good Power Point Design? I am not sure I agree with Garr Reynolds’ statement that 3D effects are “inelegant” and to be avoided. I agreed more with his earlier statement about context and not relying on absolutes. In reference to two slides that he felt were effective I immediately preferred the second. They both featured women and information about the percentage of women reflected in the workforce but the one on the right… This one seemed of a woman walking down a city street, full of energy and purpose (with the blurry image of a suited man prominently behind her). To me, this added the element he didn’t focus on. The narrative of presentation. This image added an unspoken layer. This is the real art outside of guidelines that separates good from great for me.

In another of his posts, this time a book review of Daniel H. Pink’s popularly received book, A Whole New Mind, I found a quote worthy of adding to my own list of prized profundities:

Laughter is a form of nonverbal communication that conveys empathy and that is even more contagious than the yawn…

I also found the latest visual to add to my own repertoire for making presentations. This will go nicely with my own “Grammar of Cinema” project.

This is where we get back to my self-congratulatory posting style. The most recent presentation I gave was at a job interview for a demanding ICT position at Doshisha International School, Kyoto. When making the presentation I did not actually believe I would have the chance to deliver it. Unable to stop myself, however, I produced it as though I would be. Each slide went point-by-point through the job requirements as listed in their posting. At the very least, I told myself, practicing to give it would be my best preparation for the interview regardless.

Now, having worked with MS Power Point for a variety of purposes over the years, I was excited about using Keynote. Even the iPad app has more fluid and interesting transitions than Power Point. Sticking with the concept of less is more, I avoided using too many different styles of animations and transitions and focused on brevity in the use of text. I was keeping my audience in mind as, after all, my words, from me were what they wanted to hear. As part of the job is also coaching/teacher training I further needed to demonstrate how I can deliver confident, concise, relevant messages as well.

I chose a simple, white background. I felt this would make any text I did use easier on the eyes and make the images used stand out better. The bulleted points, page titles and other text-inclusive flowcharts and graphics served two purposes. On the one hand, they would provide a backdrop to my presentation, clearly outlining the point currently being addressed. On the other hand, they kept me focused on covering all the bases in the order they were prepared. (There’s nothing worse than a presenter who rambles off on tangents, off the point, wasting the time of those he seeks to influence.)

I used white space liberally and page flips as the common transition between each slide. Mixing these up always makes me think someone is just learning the software and becomes irritating a few slides in. In the end, I was able to give the presentation. I showed up a few minutes early and was allowed to set up in the meeting room while waiting. When my interlocutors arrived and saw everything ready to go they asked to see it. Now, as the readings outlined this week, (and further extrapolated by me here) a presentation does not exist to serve the display screen. The display screen exists to facilitate effective communication. I was told I could have ten minutes. I did my best to keep moving, to maintain eye contact with everyone in the room and to speak conversationally and pause between certain sentences. When I sensed one of my interviewees had had enough I asked about time and was told that I went over. I immediately shut down and handed over the floor.

Funny thing though, the questions that were asked afterwards would have been answered had I finished my presentation. One thing I have learned about interview situations, however, is that you need to let the other side do the majority of the talking. I fought my character as best I could to allow that to happen in the interview. Frankly, presenting makes me tired anyway…


image credits not found on previously linked sites.

About Sean Thompson

Sean has accepted a position as the Director of Technology at The Early Learning Centre, City School, in Bangkok. He is excited to be working with Giovanni Piazza and the rest of the staff to raise awareness of digital-age teaching and learning practice in this Reggio Emilia inspired environment. Sean is also an Apple Distinguished Educator, an International Baccalaureate Educator Network Workshop Leader and a Google Educator available for professional development at your school.
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3 Responses to The Medium Really WAS the Message

  1. Ruthful says:

    It sounds like you have had lots of practice with giving presentations via Power Point and Keynote and that the creation of a presentation is not so much of a challenge for you. But you mentioned that it was tiring and seemingly frustrated with the interview that you mentioned in your blog. It seems like you were well-prepared, but were still told that you went over the time limit. What do you think you would have done differently if you had to do it over? Compact the data? Omit slides? Assuming that the interviewers could see that you knew how to handle the technology, (the medium was the message), what else do you think that they were looking for?

    And, just curious… what do you see now that you can no longer “unsee?” I can no longer ignore the rule of thirds in photos now.

    I have to give a presentation next week on Storytelling so I am eager to have any helpful input on presentation styles.

    • Sean says:

      Thanks for your thoughts Ruth,

      I’d like to clear up some misconceptions you had. The bit about feeling “tired” was meant as a humorous bit of catharsis. It’s the sort of thing that is supposed to funny because it has a grain of truth. It is tiring being the centre of attention while presenting to a group of unknown listeners, especially with so much at stake. Actually, I quite enjoyed the experience. (As I hold your opinion in such high regard, however, I suppose this little ploy must have failed.)

      I also mentioned how I made the presentation not expecting to give it so the time was not a frustration at all but a welcomed surprise to get any. I mentioned the part about stopping before completion to illustrate how important it is to read the audience and not just “get through it.” I also mentioned that I felt they were looking to see that I could present a concise, confident effective message and, as you mentioned, that I could use technology to enhance communication.

      Now, in terms of “unseeing” I would agree about the rule of thirds. I have been aware of this fundamental for some time and even share it with my students. From my limited art study I always notice colour scheme, use of white space, limited use of text (the hardest concept to exploit for some of my students) and through a long appreciation of film the use of sound, transitions, quiet, having images facing inwards and volume levels, and from my study of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell I always consider the need for a timeless, human narrative and how well the creator understands this most important aspect of this form of story-telling.

      For your own story-telling and use of same in class I would suggest digesting some Joseph Campbell. His first book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, is a detailed, well documented argument that all stories are the same. There is the call to action which the hero then accepts or declines. In either case a challenge ensues and the hero must go through a series of symbolic trials which transform them. They then return, irrevocably changed, with some boon of understanding to either be accepted or refused by those left behind earlier. In his other writing he makes the case that we are all the heroes of our own life stories and that finding a narrative that works for us is our highest goal. The empirical “truth” is not as I portent in this sense as the utility of the narrative in our own lives.

      I’m tired again! (Funny the second time? Obviously my narrative is “never give up,” or perhaps “keep flogging a dead horse?”

      Always a pleasure to hear from another author.


  2. 81jpayne says:

    Hey Sean

    Great post.

    I too was a little surprised when I read in that article that 3D effects are to be avoided (when preparing a presentation.)

    Whether a graphic in a presentation is 2D or 3D, doesn’t matter in my opinion.

    What’s more important is that the graphic fits/matches the overall style of the presentation.

    I don’t know. Am I interpreting “3D effects” correctly?

    Jamie P

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