PowerPoint Karaoke, Improv Presentation & the Infinite Game–Playing to Learn

I have known about PowerPoint Karaoke for years.  If the idea is new to you think “improv for presenters”.  Terrifying?  To some, any kind of presenting is next to losing a family member or having a tarantula crawl on you…

and that is why  I am exploring this as end-of-class fun for everybody.

So big deal, I have a depraved funny bone, but let me explain anyway.  The main focus of my English 300 writing course, Writing in the Disciplines, is to produce a research project that uses all of the skills most folks in rhetoric consider critical to being a competent writer: summary, critique, analysis, and synthesis.  I prefer to simplify that whole categorical mess by using Harold Jarche’s triune approach to knowledge management–‘seek/sense/share’.

Every class I try to help students do each of those elements.  I might combine a new search tool like Topsy with a sense-making tool like critiquing and use peer discussion to share.  Sometimes the mix is eclectic and weavs technologies (Google Scholar/Zotero/Scoop.it). Other times I flip the classroom and have them go totally paper and pencil and face-to-face.  The goal is to always be doing all three at some point in the class period or as part of an assignment.

One opportunity/challenge/terror they face at semester’s end is The Presentation. I have always thought of it as a festival of their ideas while many of them (especially my international and public speaking phobic learners) regard it as Professor Terry’s Cabinet of Horror.  

The theory is that since they have had the entire semester to explore their project that they have become experts and are, theoretically, more confident.  Well…while almost all are more expert than their peers by far in their research arena, most do not feel expert at all as presenters.

This fits.  Consider the presentation habits of our greatest presentation practitioners–standup comics.  Almost all of the major comics (Chris Rock and Louis CK come to mind) have a similar workflow.  Their goal is about an hour of comedy once a year. And…it takes them about a year to do that.  (Aside: Think about that and then consider how little time we allow students to get ‘good’ at presentation.)  Typically,  the comedian will work up a few minutes of stories or jokes and then do short standup sets at very intimate comedy clubs.  Some stuff kills, some stuff sucks. Over a year of trial and error (and occasionally some new material created on the fly) a coherent hour emerges. A year of starts and stops and this and that.

And what do we give students?  I won’t even say because it is the definition of the word unfair.  Hence my crazy embrace of Powerpoint Karaoke.  What are the rules?

There are no rules so much as there are…guidelines, but if you are like Crazy Walter–

then here’s yer rulez:

  • The presenter shall NOT see the presentation slides in advance.
  • The presentation time shall be limited. 5 minutes is the most common time limit.
  • The jury shall have a sense of humor.
  • The speech must be related to the Powerpoint slides. General nonsense is not allowed.
  • Imporant: Everybody shall remember that the reason to do it is to have fun

What I am doing is a slo-mo embrace of the game.  First, I introduced it and showed a few video examples.  I then asked them if they were interested in trying it out on Fridays just for fun.  Horror dawns in their eyes.  A few brave souls with the hearts of middle schoolers willing to try anything including jumping off a bridge agree to try it.  Not an auspicious start but not unlike the first days of a drama class as you practice warmups.

Next, I asked some folks on Friday if they wanted me to demonstrate.  Of course, I was terrible compared to some of the great examples I had already shown.  Then it hit me.  Let them use their own research questions/topics, let them sit at their seats and let them do just one or two slides in a variation we call “pptx-relay”.  I see a bit more enthusiasm.

Next week we will try more.  The point (heh heh, maybe I should say the powerpoint? Oh, ok that would be mega-lame) is to ease them into the water with small successes.  I create the slide decks and I advance the slides while they just do the improv.

The main purpose is to play the long game– have fun , but if you insist on having cover then find some CYA in the Common Core (good luck) or just note that we are getting students to use the oldest trick in the book–teaching others in order to learn better ourselves.  An added CYA bonus is that we begin to increase the amount of time doing at least some extra rehearsal in front of others.

I sincerely believe that if you play the infinite game, you reap infinite, ever-expanding rewards.  If you play the finite game, you get winners and losers.  Needless to say I will be the entire judging panel and I will make sure I “cheat” so that the points don’t matter.  I am endlessly creative and improvisational in ways that make sure that everyone ends up getting the same amount of points. (Aside: you should hear the howls when I do improvisational team quizzes and my strategic students discover that there is no way to win or lose OR I rig it where I am the ultimate winner.)

Here is an exemplary ppt-karaoke to gnaw on.  Tasty. Wish me luck.


2 thoughts on “PowerPoint Karaoke, Improv Presentation & the Infinite Game–Playing to Learn

  1. The power point relay sounds like a remix that decreases student anxiety and involves their feedback and thinking in the design. I’d be interested to hear how that activity evolves.

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