I remember when I was in middle school, I knew that I was going to be a teacher when I grew up, and I just kind of assumed that by the time that happened, I would be confident enough to stand in front of a classroom and speak. When I got to high school, and I was still terrified of presentations that required me to speak to my peers, I figured I needed to get a little more proactive about the problem. So I joined the speech team. I wasn’t very good and never won any medals or awards, but it was my first step toward becoming a speaker.
The first time I stood at the front of a library full of my coworkers with their attention on me was both exhilarating and absolutely terrifying. At the time, I was a middle school English teacher, not even yet department chair. Despite how nervous I was to stand up in front of my coworkers, the entire experience was amazing, and I proved to myself that I could do it.
These days, a big part of my day-to-day work is designing and leading professional development. I’ve learned much about the design and delivery of professional development and adult learning, and I think it’s time to put what I know to paper. Well, screen. You know what I mean.
Let’s set the stage. Your principal popped into your classroom for a regular walkthrough and saw something incredible happening. Now, they want you to share this wonderful strategy with everyone at the next faculty meeting or in-service day.
The first thing to decide when planning any professional development is your message. Coming from an instructional design perspective, we would use objectives, but let’s keep it simple and call it the message.
What is your key takeaway? If your colleagues walk away from your session with only one idea, what idea should that be? What do they need to be able to do at the end of your session?
This could be something like, “Students need you to care about them before you teach them” or “Incorporate ten minutes of reflective writing every day to improve skill and confidence in your content area.”
Once you know what your message is, don’t forget to tell your audience. Maybe you’ve heard this saying: Tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you just told them. Start with your message, end with your message, and make sure that everything in between supports your message.
Everyone knows that sit-and-get sessions are the worst. Look around the room the next time you have a speaker that’s only speaking. I guarantee you’ll find someone doodling on a handout, someone scrolling Instagram on their phone, and someone sleeping. Interaction is how you keep the audience engaged and give them something memorable from your session.
Depending on the length of your presentation, you have tons of options for interacting with the audience: table discussions (or breakout discussions if you’re virtual), polling, creating, and so much more.
Give the audience a taste of what you’re sharing. If your message was “Incorporate ten minutes of reflective writing every day to improve skill and confidence in your content area,” then have the participants take out a paper and pencil and do ten minutes of reflective writing (or shorter if you don’t have much time). Giving them a chance to experience what you’re sharing can be a priceless addition to your presentation.
That first presentation with the library of faculty staring back at me was all about Pear Deck. My task was to show everyone this great new tool that I’d found, and if there was enough interest after my presentation, my principal would purchase the premium plan for our campus. Instead of just telling them about Pear Deck with a PowerPoint full of screenshots, I handed out iPads and had my colleagues join the presentation using Pear Deck.
The most memorable part of that presentation was when I demonstrated my favorite way to use Pear Deck for a quick brain-break that built collaborative skills. I put up a blank draggable slide, so every participant had one dot that they could move anywhere on that slide. I asked them to work together from their seats to create a circle with all of their dots. It was chaotic and beautiful, and by the end of the activity, even my principal didn’t want to move on until they had made their circle.
These are the moments where you capture your audience and leave an impact. Don’t just trust that they’ll happen on their own. Plan those activities first.
Side note: If you’ve never heard of or used Pear Deck before, I wrote about it back when I first discovered it in 2018. Check it out!
By this point, you probably have a title slide, a slide at the beginning and end for your message, and an activity that fits somewhere in between. Now it’s time to flesh out the rest of the presentation.
You know your message and interaction. What information does the audience need before, after, and even during the interaction? What do they need to be told to remember your message?
I won’t sit here and waste my word count telling you how to design what is essentially at this point a lesson. But I do have one recommendation for how to frame the content of your presentation: Tell a story.
I presented once at a Seidlitz conference about the impact that a couple of educational technology tools had on my English Language Learners. I framed that presentation around a story about one of the sweetest students I ever taught who started the year consistently scoring zeros on weekly checks-for-understanding. I told the story of how those tools helped him improve throughout the year, in both skill and confidence. Of course, I hid any identifying information and used a pseudonym, but his story was what pulled in the audience.
I would be remiss to discuss presentations without touching on slide design. As a part of my master’s program, I took several presentation design courses and read about color theory and design principles. I could do a whole webinar on slide design alone, but for now, I’ll just hit a couple of the most important points here:
Keep it simple. When it comes to presentation slides, whether you use PowerPoint or Google Slides or Canva, whether you start from scratch or use a template, just remember to keep it simple. Choose a color palette of 3–4 colors (my trick here is to start with the school colors!). Don’t go crazy with pictures or visuals. Make sure that your slides have good contrast, meaning dark text on a light background or light text on a dark background, and don’t make anyone blind with crazy color choices.
Avoid walls of text or excessive bullet points. Most of my presentations don’t even use any bullet points anymore. My strategy is to put one important word or idea on a slide and then use my voice for the details. Remember, your slides are a visual aid to go with what you’re saying, not a document and not a handout.
It’s the day of your presentation! You put on your fancy shoes, spend a little extra time straightening your hair, and pick out your favorite long-lasting lipstick (or maybe that was just me). You’re standing in front of your colleagues, slides on the screen, ready to share.
The most important thing that I can say is: Don’t read the slides. I know that when we’re nervous, it’s easier to just read what’s on the slide, but trust me, the whole presentation will go more smoothly if you just talk to the audience. Don’t worry about every sentence being perfect or getting a little tongue-tied. You’re human. It will happen. These are your colleagues; talk to them.
The biggest piece of advice that I can give is for when the presentation is over. Take a few moments to reflect on it. What was successful? What could have gone better? What did you learn about yourself as a presenter? As a teacher?
And, if you’re anything like me, the next question will be: What’s next?