Paint the audience a picture instead of spoonfeeding them with words

Six hours before I was to hit the road for the trip to Guangzhou, I sensed there was something terribly wrong with my preparation for the upcoming talk, and that it was doomed to put the teachers off rather than leave a mark on them.

I was about to close the final PPT when, for one more time, I tried to recall the recent talks I had attended that had made a lasting impression on me. Immediately, the talk by Professor Eric Masur from Harvard University I attended on August 1 at the HK Polytechnic University came to mind. ‘How did he do it?’ I asked myself. Moreover, like the talk I was going to give, his was also attended by about 400 people. What could I learn from his talk that would increase my chances of pulling off a presentation that would inspire the 400 secondary English teachers in Guangzhou?

Then, out of the blue, a voice said in my mind: ‘People may not remember what you have said in a talk; but people will not forget what kind of person you are.’

I understood instantly why my preparation, as revealed by the 56 slides before me, did not look right. In the past few days, I had been obsessed with only the content of the presentation, and had forgotten to inject a human touch into it. The presentation looked more like a university lecture which was to be delivered half way into a course, when the students were already thoroughly immersed in the course, and fully prepared for the lecture. But for the Friday occasion, despite my good intention, and as much as I had tried to make the content digestible to the teachers, this exclusively informational talk just wouldn’t work.

This upcoming occasion was such that the teachers would be taking time off from their own schools to attend the talk on a Friday morning. The event was organised for them by the education bureau, and attendance was compulsory for them. They didn’t choose the topic, but the education bureau did. Except for the topic, they had no idea what the talk was about. I had only one hour and ten minutes. There would be another talk after mine.

I realised that what I should be doing, and in fact what I could only do, was not to cram as many content ideas into the talk hoping that the teachers would bring the ideas back to their schools and implement them immediately, but to fire them up about the topic I was going to speak on, which was about the teaching of reading.

This is what Professor Eric Masur did to me with his talk. I can recall only three to four main points he made in his presentation, but I will not forget what an innovating and passionate physics professor he was.

How did he do it? He put himself, his life experiences, the mistakes he had made, the joy he had derived from teaching physics to pre-med students, etc. into his talk.

In the speech he made at the commencement ceremony of Stanford University in 2005, Steve Jobs did nothing but tell 3 personal stories.

It’s the human touch that does the magic.

At that moment, I knew what I had to do. There was no time for me to completely revamp the entire script and PPT. But I added an introduction, and an ending, that would tell my own stories.

Eighteen hours later on Friday, Sept 27 at 9:05 a.m. in a hall inside a secondary school in Guangzhou, I began my talk to the 400 Grade 8 English teachers sitting in front of me by saying: ‘I’m honoured to have this opportunity to share some of my insights into the teaching of reading with you. But I have to admit that I don’t know your teaching situations well enough. Also, you may have different concerns regarding the teaching of reading, so that my presentation may not be able to address all your questions. But there is one thing that I hope to achieve at the end of my talk – I hope that you will then become as excited about the teaching of reading as I am.’

Then I showed them a picture of my lower secondary English coursebook, and began to narrate how mechanically my own English teachers would handle the passages in the coursebook, how easy it was for my teachers to ‘teach reading’, and how dead boring the reading lessons were for us students. I told them how I followed in my teachers’ footsteps in the teaching of reading when I became a teacher some years later, and how my own students had suffered from my teaching. Then I told them how, on becoming a teacher trainer in the mid-eighties, I started to look up the literature on the pedagogy of reading, and how it completely opened my eyes when I learnt of the notions of text types, reading skills and strategies, and task-based reading. I told them how overjoyed I was when, a few years later, I was invited by Oxford University Press to write a series of task-based reading resource books for primary, which gave me a great opportunity to put theory into practice by way of materials development. And how even today, I’m still looking for innovative ways to teach reading.

Then I continued to present the content ideas on reading pedagogy that I had earlier prepared.

An hour later, when I wrapped up the talk, I showed them pictures of tryout lessons which I had taught in secondary schools and primary schools in recent years that showed me experimenting with different ways to teach reading.

My last sentence was: I hope now you’re equally, if not more, excited about the teaching of reading as I am.


In It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be, Paul Arden shared:

‘How many speeches have you heard? How many of them can you remember?

Words, words, words.

In a song, we remember firstly the melody and then we learn the words.

Instead of giving people the benefit of your wit and wisdom (words), try painting them a picture.

The more strikingly visual your presentation is, the more people will remember it.

And, more importantly, they will remember you.’


And the picture I have painted for the 400 teachers: The teaching of reading can be challenging, but as energetic and creative teachers, they can make it a great learning experience for their students.


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