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Amplify your teaching

You love amplifiers. Even if you don’t rock out, you love amplifiers. Now before the jazz, classical music and easy-listening aficionados move on to the next article, allow me a moment to explain. As you know, a sound amplifier essentially takes noise and increases its strength to make it louder. As a firefighter, you love amplification because increasing strength with equipment is something that we do daily: fire pumps increase the discharge pressure of our water, hydraulics move extrication tools or monstrous ladders, and compressors jam a bunch of breathable air into a tiny cylinder. See . . . you love amplifiers!

April 20, 2015 
By Chris Davison-Vanderburg

What makes a successful PowerPoint? Chris Davison-Vanderburg elaborates on how fire instructors can amp up their teaching by turning down visual noise.

As instructors, we should consider how PowerPoint presentations are our visual amplifiers. We use them to strengthen the message and subject matter both visually and emotionally, which helps students with retention. Used improperly however, these visual amplifiers distract the learner from the key points and reverse the intended effect.

I remember going to see a new rock band many years ago in a small bar. The amplifiers were cranked to the point of utter distortion. The experience was unpleasant and the sound system made the group sound amateur. My friend informed me of the band’s impending record deal and I was dumbfounded. (I’m pretty sure I said the group was  going nowhere.) Months later, I heard the band’s hit song on the radio and it didn’t even sound like the same group. What was emitting from the speakers was crisp, clear and clean; it was in complete contrast to what I had witnessed live and I was able to hear the music and the message. I enjoyed it a lot more.

This story illustrates what we need to do with our PowerPoint presentations; make them crisp clear and clean by removing the distortion. I believe that we need to be careful we use our instructional amplifier so that the lessons come through clearly, are memorable and don’t allow the distraction of visual noise to turn off our students. We want our lesson to strike a chord, impact behaviour and leave firefighters thirsty for more.  

Cognitive load theory
In the February issue of Fire Fighting in Canada, I mentioned that we need to alter the way we use PowerPoint and consider how we can overload individuals with too much verbal and visual information at the same time. By splitting students’ attention with slides that are loaded with information while we lecture or talk simultaneously, we risk overloading their working memory. Very few of us are able to pay attention to two different things at once. Think about how challenging it can be to maintain focus on a
conversation that you are in, when suddenly you overhear your name being mentioned by others in a separate discussion.

The fact that our working memory capacity has inherent limits was first suggested in the 1950s. The science moved into the classroom when cognitive load theory was developed to emphasize the limitations of working memory load on learning during instruction. Instructors were cautioned to be careful where they directed a learner’s attention. Splitting a student’s attention was proven to interfere with learning. Eventually, a cognitive theory of multimedia learning was introduced and this is where PowerPoint comes back in. The theory is based on the idea that there are two separate channels for processing information – an auditory and a visual channel of which there is a limited overall channel capacity.

Think for a moment about hydraulically venting from a window: if your pattern is too wide, the water hits the wall, there is no Venturi effect and the smoke and heated gases never get outside. If you are providing a lot of visual and verbal information in your lesson at the same time, your pattern is too wide: some information will hit the wall instead of making it into your students’ brains. You want to focus the amount of information to a narrow stream so that it penetrates through the working memory and into the long-term memory.

To be clear, I encourage the use of PowerPoint at certain points during instruction. Educational psychologist Richard Mayer came up with what is known as the multimedia principle, which states that people learn more deeply from words and pictures than from words alone. Information derived from graphic images on the screen combined with the auditory information coming out of the instructor’s speech is organized dynamically to produce mental constructs. PowerPoint, when done well, can even elicit specific emotions. When we combine emotions with key learning points, it makes for a memorable lesson.

I believe, however, it is important to keep cognitive load and working memory in mind while we prepare our lessons. We must plan how we will purposefully focus, maintain and direct the students’ attentions throughout the lesson, free from distraction or visual noise.

The theory applied
So what does this mean when you need to teach? It means don’t crank the amp up too high on your PowerPoint. As an instructor, you are the star of the show, not your amplifier. While you are at your computer creating the presentation, take a moment to consider how the visual communication is going to coincide with the verbal information that will be spilling out of you. Tone down your graphics to single images or words that can match up with what you plan to say. Reduce the load on the working memory’s processing channel and provide the message crisply, clearly and cleanly. Simplicity matters.

There is a predictable journey that occurs between an individual and PowerPoint. Like the guitarist plugged into an amp, skills have to be built sequentially over time and experience makes a difference. No matter your experience level, however, the visual amplifier will be projecting your stuff. Here are some tips related to your level of PowerPoint experience:

Level 1 – The rookie
Your slides are always a title with bullet points underneath – the software default. If this describes you, you are likely still working with the software basics; how to change text, inserting images and moving between the editing and slide show modes. Don’t sweat it, everyone starts out here and keep in mind that every great fire chief had a first day on the job as a recruit!

It helps that you don’t have any bad habits to break. Start by deleting the bullet-point box. Try to create slides with minimal text, one to five words, or a single full-page image either alone or with a few words. The content of the slide should be a trigger for what your students really need to remember. Your screen should display only the highest levels of information or images that convey an emotional response. Resist bullet-point lists or step-by-step procedures on a single slide. Spread lists and step-by-step points across multiple slides, have them in your instructor notes, or provide a handout. Better yet, create activities through which the students will figure out those lists on their own.  

Level 2 – The regular instructor
You are comfortable with the software, use a stock of regular presentations, and are exploring other features such as transitions, animations, media and design templates.

Tread carefully. It is tempting to let the features of the software drive your presentation design. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should! The software features are there to help you deliver your message. Don’t get caught using your message to show off the features of the software. Using animations and screen transitions without purpose is distracting.  

You always need to ask yourself if the bells and whistles create too much noise. The goal is to be crisp, clear and clean. As I mentioned in February, it helps if you stay analog and plan your presentation before you touch the software. Having a plan will help you resist the urge to animate an object with a swivel or a bounce. If you still feel compelled to animate something, please go into the effect options and speed it up; slow motions are particularly painful.

Level 3 – The professional
You have a solid grasp of the software and know most of the hidden menu items. It’s time to take things to the next level.

Study graphic design. I know that seems ridiculous to say in the fire service, but it makes a huge difference for the learner and will raise your effectiveness exponentially. You don’t need to be a graphic designer to learn the key concepts and basic rules. Observe the language of visual communication and how to control the viewer’s eye in an aesthetically pleasing manner.

There are a lot of great graphic design resources, but two books I have found particularly valuable are Presentation Zen (and Presentation Zen Design) by Garr Reynolds and White Space is Not Your Enemy by Rebecca Hagen and Kim Golombisky. You can drastically transform slides by using the right typography, colour combinations, layout, patterns and imagery to evoke emotion and lead your students.

You may also want to explore the use of hyperlinks, especially to other slides in the same presentation. Hyperlinked menu buttons or scenarios drastically increase the possibilities of the software and can turn your passive presentation into an engaging activity. I guarantee that once you go down the hyperlink path you will never look at PowerPoint in the same way again.

By practising and mastering these techniques, you will be creating crisp, clear and clean communication through your visual amplifier. You will be the star of the show and you won’t distract attention away from your lesson. Your students will retain more and not be turned off by another death-by-PowerPoint presentation. It will strike a chord, impact their behaviour and leave them thirsty for more.

The bottom line is that your message will be better understood and enjoyed, just like when I heard the professionally mastered sound of that band. By the way, the group has sold a lot of records, and was named rock artist of the year by Billboard magazine in 2007. I eat crow for saying that the group was going nowhere!

I just needed to hear – the band, and not a lot of noise.

Chris Davison-Vanderburg is a training officer with Brampton Fire and Emergency Services. He has been a member of the fire service since 2004. Email Chris at or follow him on Twitter @CapHyphen

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