Presentation basics workshop blog post
To kick off this year’s GTC winter session on Strategies for Engagement, I (Matt Savoca) led a discussion last week on a very wide-ranging and fundamental, but all-too-often neglected, topic: presentation basics. The goal of this discussion was to talk broadly about presentations and discuss potential solutions to common roadblocks that could be applied to many different types of presentations (e.g., outreach, conference, lecture) to a myriad of different audiences (e.g., fellow academics, scientists, legislators, students, general public). To structure the discussion, I divided my talking points to into presentation basics prior to, during, and after the presentation itself. I will structure this blog post in the same way, incorporating thoughts from the entire group.
Prior to presentation:
· Know your audience!
o Incredibly important so that you don’t lose your audience by talking either above or below them. Identifying your audience and determining what talking points are most important and interesting for them is one of the first things a presenter needs to do.
· Employing backwards design
o This simply means identifying what you want your audience to have learned from your presentation and working backward to see that it happens. This adds focus to your presentation. It can be especially important for conference presentations when you have 100 things to say, but only have time to talk about 5 of them. One very interesting thought was that you can use the question period at the end of a presentation as a self-evaluation for how well your backwards-designed presentation worked.
· Creating a presentation
o As few words per slide as possible (best talk I’ve ever seen had no words at all!)
§ Upon further discussion with the group, this point was controversial because of the different ways people learn (auditory vs. visual learners). Also, if you are teaching a class, students may want important points (e.g., definitions, explanations of topics) to read while reviewing the lecture slides at home. It did seem as though if you use powerpoint, it should be complimentary (i.e., not totally independent) to your presentation itself.
o To make sure your talk’s length is close to the time allotted, having approximately one slide per minute is a good rule of thumb. For example, if you have 50 powerpoint slides for a 20 minute presentation, it would be extremely difficult to get through all those slides in the time allotted. I feel as though it is always better to leave more time at end rather than going over.
o Font sizes and contrasts
§ Be mindful of red/green colorblindness; 10% of men are red/green colorblind.
§ Try to not use neon or bright colors (e.g., yellow, orange, red) for text. Typically black text on a white background or white text on a black background are the best options.
§ Font size – the group came up with several ideas:
· As large as can fit in the space
· 30 point minimum
· Never use a font smaller than the age of the oldest person in the room
· Practice, practice, practice!
o Typically, the overall quality of your presentation will be positively related to how much time you devote to practicing. Practice for friends or your lab group or alone in front of a mirror, whichever you prefer, but do practice.
· Arrive early
o This way you have plenty of time to check connections, set up your presentation, and prepare for your talk.
· Be engaged, enthusiastic, passionate, and interested.
o It’s your work, you should enjoy talking about it! You can lose your audience’s interest almost immediately if you don’t sound engaged and engaging. If you are giving the same lecture for the 100th time, try mixing it up. Even something as simple as reorganizing the syllabus can keep things lively. Besides, staying excited with students benefits them and us.
· Don’t read slides, except possibly at critical moments to reinforce your point
· Speaking volume – it’s ok to ask the audience in the back if they can hear you!
· Limit umms, uhhs, etc., pause and breathe in instead.
· Stop and Engage!!
o Prompt the audience with a question or brief activity. Audience participation keeps people awake and engaged.
· Never apologize for your data or results!!
o Also, don’t apologize at the beginning of your talk; this may lower your audience’s expectations. Spin this by thanking the audience instead of apologizing. For example, “Thanks for coming, I really appreciate your attention. I’m excited to present this new research and I’d love your feedback on where and how it may be improved.”
o However, do apologize if you made a superficial error or misspoke if either you or someone in the audience notices; doing this shows you care.
o Speak clearly, slowly, and with limited or no jargon depending on your audience.
o Personally, I know I have a tendency to speak fast while giving presentations, so I try to pay special attention to slow my speaking speed.
o Controlled movements of the arms and hands, including keeping your palms outward, are good examples of body language, whereas having your arms crossed and slouching might leave a bad impression. Also, it is typically not a bad idea to move around the speaking area, assuming you do not need to be tied to the computer to advance slides, which brings us to…
· Use of laser pointers and slide advancers.
o Some people like laser pointers, while others don’t. Some audience members (myself included) enjoy judicious use of a laser pointer while others may find it distracting. As a result, using one should be a matter of personal preference. Using a slide advancer may make your presentation seem more professional since you don’t have to turn your back to the audience or race back to the computer to advance a slide. If you have the tendency to fidget, having something like a laser pointer or slide advancer in your hand might cut down on your twiddling.
· Answering questions is really important!!! Never give one-word answers.
o Try to repeat/rephrase the question so you're sure the whole audience knows what question you’re answering. Also, rephrasing the question makes sure that you and the questioner are on the same page.
· Make yourself available for interaction after you’re finished if possible and be prepared to respond to questions over email, if you provided your email address in the presentation or in a handout.