Experts know the facts and data, educators know how to make facts and data come alive.  We teach people how to be educators.

Hillside has been teaching medical experts how to teach for over 15 years.  When an expert is asked to present new scientific findings to his or her peers a lot of emphasis is put on just the physical skills of presenting, let’s discuss three things to consider when turning your expert into an educator.

1. Consider Your Audience

Of course, the information an expert will share is important.  It is the reason for the presentation in the first place.  But before they create a single slide, educators carefully consider their audience. Content matters of course, but only the content that the audience cares about.  We have seen many presentations fail in their objectives, not because the content was poor, but because the audience was not shown, clearly and simply, why it was important to them.

Educators know that presentations are most effective when the audience is actively engaged in the process (McKeachie, 2006; Weaver & Qi, 2005); the audience members are paying attention and associating what they see and hear to what they know already.  For this to happen, the audience must be motivated.  At the most practical level, they must be able to see and hear what they will gain from the presentation. Educators prioritize their content to what will have the most value to their audience.  Each time they ask the question, “What should I present?, ”  they ask, “Why would my audience care?”

2. Keep the Content Simple

Educators know that focusing their presentations on what the audience will find important is a great first step in cutting out the clutter of detail that would otherwise overwhelm the audience – and the speaker.  They understand that while audiences enjoy the opportunity to see and hear a human being talk about their ideas, the audience’s ability to pay attention to the most important points, consider them, and process them for later recall is working at its very limits.   Unlike reading a book or browsing a website, an audience member in a live presentation has no chance to review or revisit what they don’t understand in their first pass.  The information moves by them like a train rolling through a station – what they don’t catch is gone.

So educators make their content as simple as possible, they align a number of key points to the limits of the audience’s working memory, the conscious mental “whiteboard” (Cowan, 2005) where new information is highlighted, considered, and connected to existing knowledge.  They know that to exceed the limits of working memory, around 5 important points (less is better) is to condemn the excess to mental oblivion – it might has well never been said.

Finally, educators know that for information to stick, it needs to be connected with what the audience already knows and to the other key points in the presentation.  Building logical associations permits one remembered key point to lead simply and logically to another.

3. Connect to People

This is unsurprising given the long of history humans telling stories.

Speaking to a large group can be scary, but accepting the importance of the human dynamic in making presentations can provide enormous opportunities for the educator who can work within its constraints and deal with its immediate challenges.

On the plus side, adult audiences are strongly attracted to seeing and hearing a speakers share their knowledge in person, in videos, or podcasts.  Of course, they are interested in the content outcomes, what they will learn and take away, but in the process of listening and learning they are also benefit from the information that is communicated around the content in how the content is presented (Allen, Long, O’Mara, & Judd, 2008).  This non-verbal information should be consistent with the messages in the slides shown and the words spoken – the messenger should look and sound as clear as the messages.

In return the audience is constantly sending the presenter information that has value – a flexible presentation can be adapted and the education personalized.  An expert will deliver information with little regard to the social context.  The talk is colorless and flat like a dry textbook read aloud.  An educator will construct a social “bridge” that carries the key points of their talks.  They master and send those non-verbal signals (Mehrabian, 1981) that encourage the audience to listen – they look and sound like someone the audience would want to learn from.  Then they stay open to the signals the audience is sending; always ready to adjust and adapt their talk to the feedback they receive.

Allen, J. L., Long, K. M., O’Mara, J., & Judd, B. B. (2008). Students’ Predispositions and Orientations toward Communication and Perceptions of Instructor Reciprocity and Learning. Communication Education, 57(1), 20-40.

Cowan, N. (2005). Working memory capacity. Hove, East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press.

McKeachie, W., J., & Svinicki, Marilla. (2006). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research and theory for college and university teachers (Twelfth Edition ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Mehrabian, A. (1981). Silent messages (2nd. ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Weaver, R., & Qi, J. (2005). Classroom Organization and Participation: College Students’ Perceptions. Journal of Higher Education, 76(5), 570-601.