Tag Archives: public speaking

The Return of Random Power Point Presentations

You might remember the classroom activity that I call ‘Random Power Point Presentations’ – if not, you can read about the original idea here and see some sample presentations here.

In the original challenge, the students had advance warning of the topic but no idea what was going to be on the slides. In this new version of the activity, it’s the other way around: the students receive the five slides of their presentation the day before class, but are only told what the topic of the talk is a few minutes before they have to give it!

Hang on. How can this possibly work? If they can see the slides, can’t they work out what the topic is? In this case, no. See for yourself. Here is the image that I posted for the students to see the day before the lesson:

most people think

I deliberately looked for the kind of generic images that could be applied to any topic. As for the five-slide structure, it represents a simple rhetorical progression, attempting to guide the audience from a state of honest misapprehension to one of enlightenment, signing out with a fairly crude action-point. (You can tell I’ve sat through a fair few late-night infomercials in my time…) I posted these instructions alongside the image:

most people think instructions

In class the next day I put the students into groups of three. Each group would have 25 minutes to prepare a short 2-3 minute presentation, with each person having to speak at some point during the task. The presentation titles were already written on slips of paper. Each group drew a title out of the hat and read it out loud. There was quite a bit of laughter because – naturally – I had chosen some very weird titles. Here they are:

‘The end of the rainbow – closer than you think’
‘Polar bears in space – the final frontier’
‘Too much cheese’
‘A dollar a day – hey! hey! hey!’
(There was also another one about zombies, I think, but I can’t remember the title of that one)

The presentations were every bit as creative and imaginative as I had hoped they would be. For example, the group who had the bizarre topic of ‘Too much cheese’ had the clever idea that CHEESE was an acronym (C = cocaine, H = heroin, E = ecstasy etc.) and turned it into a drugs awareness talk. Brilliant.

I like this activity a lot. The coherence of the 5-slide structure not only helps the speakers navigate their way through their talk, it also adds a dash of style. The three slides in the middle (most people think – most people forget – what you need to remember) were my attempt to incorporate a rhetorical technique which is sometimes described as ‘set-em-up-and-knock-em-down’ – in which the speaker intensifies the eventual impact of the message (‘what you need to remember’) by first making the audience wait while s/he briefly considers a commonly-held argument before revealing its flaws (‘most people think’ – ‘most people forget’).

It occurred to me that this 3-step progression could also be a good planning tool for writing assignments, especially the kind of pro/contra essays which often feature on exams. In my experience, the problem many students encounter when faced with an opinion-based assignment is that they run out of things to say. And why? Often it’s because they get to the point too quickly – in other words, they start with ‘what you need to remember’ and ignore ‘most peole think’ and ‘most people forget’.

A simple worksheet using the 3-step structure can help students plan more effectively and develop their ideas and arguments. Here are some examples, from an intermediate-level group. I wonder if the students would have reached the same conclusions if they had considered the topic in a less structured way? What do you think?

12f learning english

12f getting good grades

12f hungarian football

Random Power Point Challenge

Every Thursday morning I have an extra before-school class that all interested students are welcome to attend. The class focuses on public speaking and the Thursday morning lesson begins at seven o’clock, which is why we have started referring to it as ‘public sleeping’.

Last week I thought about getting students to give 10-slide Power Point presentations, but wanted to make it both challenging and enjoyable.

The resulting idea is the Random Power Point Challenge: that awkward moment when you are giving a presentation but have no idea what is on any of the slides.


1. Put together several Power Point presentations.

Although each presentation should have a title and a theme, the content of each slide should be gloriously random and totally unpredictable.

The four presentations that I made were called

Noticing trees more effectively – a beginner’s guide

Surviving high school – probably

Am I racist?

No way, DJ! – thaaaaaat’s right, dawg

2. Get the students into pairs or groups. Then tell them the title of the talk they are going to give. They cannot see the slides, of course. Let them have a few minutes to discuss what the key message of their presentation is going to be.

Point out that good speakers can sometimes ‘bend’ input to make it reflect their own agenda, the same way that we have all seen politicians twist questions around before answering quite a different question altogether.

3. Load the Power Point presentation. Introduce the speakers as experts in their field, and explain that they are going to give a fascinating, thought-provoking and motivating talk.

The students can come out to the front of the class to begin their talk. It is ‘their’ presentation, of course, even though they have never seen it before, so the students get to decide what to say about each slide, how much to say and when to click on to the next slide.

4. At the end of the presentation, invite questions from the audience.

One of the slides from the ‘Am I racist?’ presentation

A deliberately bizarre slide from the ‘Am I racist?’ presentation


Let’s be honest: this is a desperately difficult task, perhaps even the kind of thing that would be difficult to do well in the native language.

So how did it go? Actually, it was a huge success. The students really enjoyed it, and – though I say it myself – did an excellent job.

Why does this activity work well with gifted students?

I think the fact that the content of each presentation is essentially nonsense takes the pressure off students. Of course they are going to be tongue-tied. Who wouldn’t be?

With practice, however, they find their feet, and sometimes come up with brilliant things to say. It would appear that the juxtaposition of incongruous elements on a slide can trigger a gestalt phenomenon – in other words, when suddenly asked to make a link between Yoda and dancing your brain works feverishly to complete the task, often with remarkable success.

A slide from the ‘Noticing trees more effectively’ presentation

Quick-witted speaker improvises a tree-themed tomato-soup ninja story…

After the lesson the students said that we should definitely have more Random Power Point lessons in the future. And I agree. Only next time, guess who’s going to be writing the Power Points before the lesson?

That’s right – the students.

KarMUN 2012

This year I took two students to the Karinthy Model United Nations Conference at the Karinthy Frigyes Gimnázium in Budapest. This is the fourth or fifth year that I have taken student delegates to this event, where hundreds of students from different schools in  Hungary and around the world get together to debate affairs of international significance according to the structure and protocol of the United Nations.

Soma represented the Russian Federation in the Security Council, Kata took the role of the delegate of the Netherlands in the North Atlantic Council. Both of them had to prepare thoroughly for the three-day conference, researching the issues, clarifying their countries’ own positions and writing policy statements and draft resolutions.

The opening ceremony was held in the building of the Hungarian Parliament.

Public Speaking Competition 2011

I’ve had mixed feelings about the public speaking competition this year (it’s a long and rather tedious story in connection with last year’s competition) but with such a talented and dedicated group of students it seemed a pity not to get involved this year, too. Besides which, my early-morning extra-curricular class at school is actually called the ‘Public Speaking group’ so it’s not really one of those competitions we can dismiss as being outside our area of special interest.

Here are a few of my thoughts in connection with today’s local round of the competition:

* It takes talent and intelligence to make a speech in front of an audience in a foreign language, but most of all it takes guts.

* Practice really does make perfect. Getting up to make a speech for the first time can be such a harrowing experience that many people vow never to do it again. Those that persevere find that although it never becomes easy to speak in front of an audience, it certainly becomes easier. Seeing the transformation in my own students has been truly gratifying. Once timid and terrified, they are now so assured and impressive. It really has been a fantastic transformation to see.

* A speech might be good on paper, but if it’s not delivered well it can still fall flat. Good speakers understand that making a speech is not merely about building an argument and organising a sequence of ideas, but about connecting with an audience. Substance is paramount, but without style the whole thing will go unnoticed.

* It is impossible for a group of judges to listen to ten appealing, engaging and original speeches and then decide which one was best. It simply can’t be done, no matter how professional and experienced they might be. The most they can accomplish is to select a winner on the basis of which speech they thought was the strongest. As we have seen time and time again, it doesn’t matter how detailed the judging criteria are, different judges will interpret the speeches in drastically contrasting ways. The results always seem to be surprising.

* Audiences are benevolent. They don’t want to see speakers fail and falter, they want to see them triumph. The buzz of a really impressive speech energises everyone in the room, not just the speaker. And even if a speech does not go as well as hoped, the audience members maintain their respect for the speaker – they know how much courage it takes to get up and take the stage. They might not have that much courage themselves yet, but then there is always next year…