Giving a good presentation

Presentations are the mainstay of academic life, as well as the corporate and business world. Undergraduate students will probably need to give solo or group presentations as part of their coursework. Postgradute students will certainly have to do so. But giving a good presentation is an art, and it takes a lot of practice. I thought in this blog post, I would share some of my tips and practical suggestions for giving a good presentation.

Make it relevant

The golden rule of giving a good presentation is to make sure the audience know why they’re listening to you. Don’t just plunge straight into the heart of your topic without first giving a rationale for the work and explaining why it’s relevant and why they should care. Too many people assume that everyone is as passionate about their research as they are. They aren’t. They won’t care about your research into XXX until you tell them why you’re doing it.

This follows on from the old adage, ‘tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them’. Your talk should have a beginning, a middle and an end. Both the beginning and end should highlight the wider significance of the work, and leave the audience with a take home message that they’ll remember.

Clean slides

Good slides are the mainstay of an interesting presentation. Your presentation should be audience focussed, not presenter focussed. That means designing your slides to be visually interesting for your audience, and not to act as cues for you. Note: this does not mean that you need to be a graphic designer or have beautiful slides. Simple slides work really well, and do not have to be exceptionally slick to give a good presentation. What they do need to use is the idea-image approach.

People cannot read and listen at the same time. Putting text on your slides and reading it aloud is soporific and desperately dull for your audience. Instead, put a title or statement at the top of the slide and put a great image illustrating the concept or point on the slide. This is much more interesting for your audience, and they will be likely to retain more information. Avoid bullet points if at all possible!

Stick to these rules:

  • One idea per slide
  • One slide per minute
  • Keep it simple and clean
  • Use minimal text
  • Use a statement and an image

Good presentation practice

Practice makes perfect with presentations. An audience-centric presentation is harder work for the presenter – you’ll need to practice more. Make sure you know what you want to say for each slide, and time yourself.

For your audience to be enthusiastic about your talk, you need to be enthusiastic too. Smile, and say how pleased you are to be giving the talk. Look your audience in the eye, and try and engage with them.

Try to avoid nervous ticks or fiddling with your hair, clothes, fingers or anything else during your presentation. Get someone to video you giving a presentation. You’ll be amazed how many ticks you have.

Use an automatic hand-held slide changer to change your slides; it will make life a lot easier and free you from the keyboard. However, resist the temptation to use the laser pointer – it irritates people.

Most people talk too fast when they’re nervous. If you need to, force yourself to take a deep, slow breath at the end of each slide. It will calm you and slow you down, and give your audience a chance to catch up. Gather your thoughts, and then progress to the next slide. Stand up, stand still, talk slowly and calmly, and remember to smile.

A confident approach

This follows on from the previous paragraph. A good speaker owns the room. Stand with your shoulders back, remember that you’re the expert in this, and own the room. Think of your bubble of personal space expanding to include everyone in the room.

The rule of threes

Aesthetics and graphic designers know it, and public speakers know it. Threes are appealing. Good speaches often include threes. Why? It’s simple, it’s powerful, and it works. See what I did there? Concepts or ideas presented in threes are more interesting, more enjoyable, and more memorable. Create a pattern with the rule of threes, and people will remember your statement.

You can use repetition of a key word or phrase three times to emphasise a point, and make it memorable (see here).

See also this good article on the Rule of Threes.

Audience attention

Bear in mind that attention peaks at the start and end of your presentation, and slumps in the middle.

Audience attention slumps in the middle of your presentation.

Audience attention slumps in the middle of your presentation.

Make sure you don’t say anything too important in the middle of your presentation, when people’s minds are wandering, and they’re thinking about what to have for dinner.

You can bring people back though. Moving pictures are great; add a video or YouTube clip in the middle of your presentation to give people a break and spark their interest with something different. Alternatively, summarisw key points and give intermediate conclusions at regular points during your presentation.

Spark audience attention with intermediate conclusions, or a video or movie to capture their interest.

Spark audience attention with intermediate conclusions, or a video or movie to capture their interest.

Questions

Questions are often the most intimidating part of a presentation, but they are often the most useful and interesting. If someone floors you with a difficult question, smile and say thanks, and tell them that it’s a very interesting question while you think about the answer. If you don’t know, thank them for the interesting point, and say you’ll think about it. No one expects you to know all the answers, but you’ll look like a fool if you try and blag it.

If they badger you or are particularly belligerent or unpleasant (which is very rare, in my experience), calmly suggest you discuss it afterwards.

Any comments?

Any comments or suggestions on how to give a good presentation? Leave a comment in the box below.

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