Pointers for Presentations

(rev. January 29, 2014)

In-class presentations are a vital component of college-level learning. When you are presenting, the class is depending on you to make the most of the opportunity. When you are not presenting, the presenter is depending on you in the same way. Here are pointers to help presenters as well as the rest of us as we take on the responsibilty of class discussion.

Facilitate a productive discussion of the text.

Before you go on, repeat that until it really sinks in: The point of a presentation is to facilitate a productive class discussion of the reading.

By "productive" I mean that discussion evokes class participation that deepens and strengthens the class' appreciation of the significance of the reading. That is our fundamental goal.

Do not expand upon bullet points, but recite a prepared text.

It is vital that you structure your work as true graduate school seminar-style presentations. In these, students simply read a prepared text, word for word, either pausing for questions and comments as they come up or attending to them after a major section or at the conclusion of the paper.

Students, especially beginning students, are convinced that these will be dull. So some submit PowerPoint-style "bullet points" and try to "liven them up" with spontaneous comments and expansions. This never works. It unfocuses the presentation, disorients the audience, bloats the discussion so that it goes at least twice as long as it should, and introduces lots of awkward silence.

Seasoned experts can use a variety of formats to structure an effective presentation and discussion. Beginning students cannot. I will not accept any other format for these presentations than straight prose, properly paragraphed, read verbatim, with enough time for discussion. If you submit a text in an unacceptable format, we will either postpone the discussion while you rewrite it (and take a late penalty), or we will skip it and you will receive greatly diminished credit.

Don't just condense and repeat; understand and analyze.

As the presenter, you are the "class interpreter." Your first task is to understand the reading and to help the rest of us understand it too.

This may prove to be hard work. Simplifying is the heart of introductory teaching:

[Legendary Caltech physics professor] Richard Feynman was once asked by a younger colleague: "Dick, explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half [quark] particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics." Feynman answered: "I'll prepare a freshman lecture on it." Feynman came back a few days later and said: "I couldn't do it. I couldn't reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don't really understand it."

If every student needs to invest time and effort to engage the reading, this is all the more true of the presenter.

Give yourself enough time.

Understanding, analyzing, and presenting a reading all take time. If you are presenting, read through your text several days ahead. You want it to percolate so your interpretation comes through discernment, not just reaction. Read it several times, so that the major themes emerge, the nuances surface, the unclear portions become clear — and so you have time to look up terms and figures you are unfamiliar with.

If you are not presenting, you still need to read the text closely and carefully. Don't wait until the last minute and skim.

First, do no harm.

Be sure you represent the writer accurately! Introducing distortions is worse than failing to represent the author in the first place.

By the way, vagueness is not an acceptable alternative to accuracy.

Focus discussion on the major points.

An effective presentation correctly judges which points to emphasize and develop and which to ignore. Focus on just a few big, interesting ideas in your text. Don't rehearse the text page by page. That will bore people who did the reading and kill the discussion.

Other readers should likewise ask: What are its main points?

Make sure individual details serve the primary focus.

Consider using any of the following structural elements in your presentations, in declining order of importance:

  • brief summaries of the fundamental points you are highlighting (in your own words! keep quotes to a minimum!),
  • clarifications and detail where you think the class will need more guidance and perhaps more time to get the material,
  • leading questions you think will bring us to better understanding,
  • questions where you yourself need clarification,
  • your own observations,
  • your objections,
  • and other material you want to bring in,

but only to help facilitate a productive discussion of the text.

Ask questions we can answer.

Asking the right discussion questions is really an art. In fact, it is a form of teaching. Do not pose questions that do not promise to teach us as we respond to them. In other words, do not pose questions that

  • we are not equipped to answer,
  • take us away from the text we are supposed to be discussing,
  • invite mere reaction to the text rather than engagement with it,
  • simply re-state the author's claims as interrogatives,
  • will leave the class fumbling for a helpful response, or
  • waste our class time.

Instead, pose questions that

  • a fair knowledge of the course and the current text does equip us to answer,
  • focus us back on the text in its role within our course,
  • force us to take the text seriously rather than invite us merely to affirm or dismiss it,
  • take us deeper into the world of the text and its author,
  • point toward the kind of answer that will be most fruitful for us (for instance, if you want a concrete answer, don't ask an abstract question), and
  • invest our class time wisely.

Substance beats style.

"Creative" stuff like PowerPoint, graphics, color, audio, Play-Doh, etc. is okay, but it has to be done really well to be worth the time the class will be investing in it. It rarely is.

Go deep, but don't go long.

For lower division classes, length of the written presentation should be no more than two-thirds of one single-spaced page. For upper division classes, length should be no more than one page for a fifty-minute or class session, one and one-half pages for a sixty-five minute class session, and two pages for a two-hour class session.

I mean it!

In those very few paragraphs, demonstrate solid, accurate, thorough understanding of the reading, and help fellow students gain something of the same depth of understanding.

Begin with an (exceedingly brief) introduction.

An introduction is a good way both for the presenter to lead everyone where you want them to go and to focus your own writing. With our length constraints you should keep it to two or three sentences maximum. As a rule, the less cutesy the better.

If your introduction suggests that the discussion is going to be boring, then it probably means you have failed to choose the best topics from the text. Start again.

Finish your draft early.

I am serious about that. Presenters should complete your draft at least a day before the assignment is due. After you write, set it aside for a while. When you come back to it you will notice unimportant points, unclear areas, grammatical errors, outright inaccuracies, distractions, and unproductive questions much more easily than you will if you write it at the last minute and give it only a quick read.

I also recommend you go through the assigned reading again after you have finished your draft. It will probably seem clearer to you than ever before, and that clarity will help you polish and further focus your presentation.

Peer-review your presentation.

A student colleague can help a presenter by reading the assigned reading extra closely, reading the draft presentations, making suggestions, and being there for him or her in case the rest of the class is feeling drowsy. Do an informal or formal peer review in which you go through a checklist like this:

  • Is the presentation properly formatted?
  • Does it represent the reading fairly and substantially?
  • Will it briefly refresh the memories of students as to what the reading was about?
  • Does it analyze rather than merely repeat the material?
  • Has the presenter included appropriate page references?
  • Are its main points aligned with the main themes in the reading, rather than making incidental points, going on tangents, or substituting the presenter's own agenda?
  • Does it appeal to other course materials (e.g., prior readings) to help us make connections?
  • Do questions lead discernably to answers (i.e., will the class know how to respond)? Are the answers constructive rather than merely repetitive of the text being discussed?
  • In sum, is the presentation likely to guide an informed, productive discussion that helps the class appreciate the significance of the reading?

Read your presentation aloud as you edit.

Your presentation is a performance, so it deserves a rehearsal. Spoken English needs to be simpler than written English, because listeners cannot go back and review. Read your prose aloud and you will notice mistakes and needless complexities you tend to miss when you read silently. You will also become a more confident reader in class because you will be better at stressing your major points.


When you return to your presentation for your final edit, go through and simplify everything: Your grammar, the ideas, your clarifications and questions. Cut material that turns out to be distracting from your main point(s), even if you have grown fond of it.

Don't forget your name, the title, the date, and full citation information.

An example of what I am looking for here is in this lower division presentation.

Make a copy for everyone.

Try not to save this step until the last minute, because if you do, the Enemy will jam the copier.

Not presenting today? Support the presenter.

If you are not presenting, then support the student who is by doing the reading, working to understand it before class, listening closely, participating when (and only when) you have something worth saying that's on topic, contributing substantial points rather than just visceral reactions, and being appreciative of both the presenter's work and other students' questions. Remember, we are a team. Thank you for being a part of it.