We’ve all sat through tedious presentations with text-heavy slides and a monotone, stagnant speaker. How do you keep from becoming that speaker yourself? Here are my personal strategies for presenting well.
Writing the Presentation Proposal
Proposals are typically short, limiting you to 100, 250, or 500 words. So take the cue and be to-the-point about your topic, avoid “scholarly” lingo if possible. My typical mind-frame is imagining I’m describing the topic to a friend. You want to be engaging and explain why people should care about your topic.
The only real rule I have about proposals is to send them. You’ll never be accepted if you don’t at least try, and I’ve been surprised by the number of times my proposals have been accepted. The only caveat here is to be sure to only propose to events you can conceivably attend–don’t pitch proposals for two concurrent conferences at the same time. Be mindful and professional about your commitments.
Creating the Slideshow (or not)
We don’t all absorb information in the same way–that’s how the idea of “learning styles” came about. Think about ways you can present the information using various methods, to reach the most people and keep the audience’s attention (through speech, written text, visual images, movement, etc.). How can you use the slide to emphasize what you’re verbally saying, but in a different way?
Personally, I’m visually attuned–I like images, to understand things through visual representations. So I feel it’s important to use images in presentation slides. It helps break up all that text, and it could help your audience understand your point better. Not crummy clip art (see this preso), not meaningless filler images, but an image that directly illustrates a point (like a table illustrating data) or is contextually/thematically related. Are you talking about data, specific outcomes? Then SHOW it to us, don’t just talk about it and show a slide full of text.
Need some tips on how to edit images? See the presentation below for ideas.
Be mindful to use public domain or creative-commons licensed images (or your own). Here are a few resources to get you started–and remember, most government-produced images are public domain!
Here’s a presentation on using public domain images (and my personal manifesto against clip-art).
When it comes to slide themes and Prezi templates, strive for simplicity and readability. If you’re familiar with the room in which you’re presenting, use that knowledge. Rooms that are brightly lit (even with the lights on) and/or have weak projectors, tend to work better with dark slide backgrounds and white or light text. Dark rooms and strong projectors work well with light, white, or medium-colored slide backgrounds and dark text. If you’re not sure, try for a very light background and dark text–high contrast makes your slide more easily readable in any circumstance.
Don’t use a slide theme, Prezi template, or font that is too “fancy” and distracting. Err on the side of simplicity–the slide text should be easy to read. You’re not entering a design contest (although ideally, you want something aesthetically pleasing), you’re trying to clearly communicate information. Prezi can get particularly distracting if you zoom, rotate, and move around a lot between slides. Sure, it’s thrilling and different–but it can also nauseate your audience. I’ve used Prezi, PowerPoint, and Keynote–the important thing isn’t the tool you use, but how you use it.
I’m a proponent of less text in slides. I know several effective presenters who put no text in their slides, and that’s admirable (and risky!). However, as an audience member, I like some text on a slide to give me an idea of where the speaker is headed. Text can be used effectively in slides to: highlight key words and ideas, use repetition to make a point, and convey long quotes (when absolutely necessary).
Here’s a helpful viewpoint: think about what you dislike in presentations. It’s surprisingly hard to keep that perspective in mind when creating your own slides. I’ve noticed myself falling into the same habits that drive me nuts when I’m in the audience (like writing the exact text I plan to say on the slide–arg!). Viewing the presentation from the audience’s perspective helps me avoid these things.
Some people say that fewer slides are better. I don’t always agree; sometimes I need to move through multiple slides quickly, to make a point. Don’t worry about hard and fast “presentation rules” (including what I’m saying here!). Try what feels natural for you, and if it seems to work, keep doing it.
For instance: if you don’t present well with slides, then don’t use them. There are other ways to bring in visual cues, and if you’re a dynamic speaker, you can opt to go without them altogether.
My personal style of notes varies a bit. Sometimes I make notes that look like an outline with bulleted lists (similar to my slide text), with keywords bolded (readers of this blog probably aren’t surprised by my penchant for, ahem, boldness). Sometimes I write a near full-length script, but again with key words and phrases bolded. A script helps me to practice with all the content I want to say, and have a “cheat sheet” if I lose my way during the Real Thing. (This is particularly important during job interviews, allowing you to continue on during a moment of panic without looking like you’ve lost your way.) However if I’m breezing along as I usually do, I just glance at my notes briefly to check the next bolded word/phrase, which jogs my memory.
Presenting (The Speaking Bit)
Ask yourself: how can you present engagingly? Present in a way that makes your session moderators glad they asked you, instead of just reading a paper you wrote. To me, this means bringing your personality into the mix and explaining your ideas in plain language.
I have two “presenting” tones for my voice. One is formal, reserved for the rare occasion when I’m asked to read a paper, or give a speech. I try to avoid this tone whenever possible–it isolates the audience, and I dislike listening to presentations given in such tones. The second tone, which is just an energized version of my everyday voice, takes some practice but is far more interesting. To use this tone, it helps to be in the right mindset. Don’t think of spectators as The Audience To Which You Are Presenting, think of them as a group of interested colleagues and friends. Be relaxed, even casual if possible–it’s more interesting for an audience to listen to your relaxed voice.
One method that helps me get into Relaxed Voice Mode is practicing a presentation in front of friends. Practicing with colleagues can help, but there’s nothing that will make your Formal Presentation Voice sound sillier that giving your dissertation defense presentation to your husband. (True story–poor guy.) I loosened up considerably the second time around, and gave a more interesting presentation because of it (according to him).
I’m an advocate of being as active as possible while speaking–walk around, wave your arms. This goes directly against my communication courses in high school and college, who told me to stand still and stop fidgeting (ha!). However, I like watching active, dynamic speakers, that’s how I prefer to present. If I’m presenting and you see me standing still behind a podium, I’m either being held hostage by stodgy academics (please send help!) or I’m feeling under the weather (please send hot and sour soup to my hotel room!).
After the Presentation
If there’s an opportunity, ask for feedback from the audience (or moderator). At an academic conference, there may be a session discussant who’s specifically tasked with reading your full paper and giving feedback, which I find amazing. If there’s a Q&A, take notes about the questions–they can help you determine what topics you should expand on. Remember, you may present on this topic again—feedback is helpful! Even if criticisms are worded, ahem, not so diplomatically, take it with a grain of salt and keep the critic’s actual point in mind.
Also use feedback for the next step, which is: refine your topic for publication. If your presentation is research-related, this should be a no-brainer. Let me get on my soapbox here and shout: disseminate your research broadly! If your topic is geared toward practitioners and/or is hands-on, consider if there’s an appropriate publication outlet for it.
Finally, make your presentation findable online. Upload slides to slideshare (see screenshot) or otherwise link to your slides. Update your CV (print version, online, and LinkedIn page) with the presentation title, event, and date.
Now, do I always follow my own advice? No, I tweak depending on the particular topic and–even more so–depending on the audience. In the past three weeks, I’ve given two presentations: one used many images and one had only a background image. Neither had a lot of text. Each was suited for its purpose.
In the end, it’s up to your judgment. Noted statistician / informationist / infographic guru Edward Tufte gives a bunch of perfectly logical reasons why PowerPoint (or any slideshow) is a wretched way to present information. I think Tufte is a visionary when it comes to presenting data, and I see many of his points–but I still find slideshows an effective way for me to present. I’m interested in your feedback.
To wrap things up, here’s a list of related posts: