Where presentations are concerned, students seem to be divided into two distinct groups. There are the few that seem completely at home when talking to groups, and then there are the majority for whom presenting anything to a group is a major ordeal.
Preparation is Key for a Good Presentation
Whichever group you are in, there’s a right way and a wrong way to prepare. I’ve sat through many student presentations over the years – some are very good, and in other cases, quite frankly terrible. Why? Because you need to know how to prepare the content for discussion. Giving a good presentation isn’t about cramming everything you’ve done over the course of a project into 20 minutes. It’s about telling a story…so choose the main characters and set the scene. Ask yourself, “would it be more interesting to concentrate on two or three compounds that showed an interesting relationship, or simply recite the methods and procedures for twenty”?
Engaging the Audience – Tell a Story
It’s really important to engage with your audience, and the best way to do this is to make your presentation into a story. So give it a beginning, middle and end. Just watch the length of the beginning though, particularly in a short talk, or you’ll end up using valuable time just saying what you are going to be saying! So, here’s what should be in each section. You can time the middle section after taking into account how long the beginning and end will be.
- Beginning (1-2 minutes): After the title slide, one slide with a few keywords will do to introduce your work and set the scene.
- Middle (majority of talk): The middle section should flow smoothly, so keep on topic and make sure there is a logical follow on from slide to slide. If there isn’t you risk losing your audience’s concentration.
- End (1-2 minutes, plus 3-5 minutes for questions): Finish with a Conclusion slide, a Future Work slide (if applicable) and then Acknowledgements. You really don’t need a slide at the end for Any Questions. You, or the person chairing the presentation session will do this verbally.
How Many Slides Should I Use?
Ah yes, the most commonly asked question by students about to prepare a presentation. And an impossible question to answer, as it surely depends on content. But luckily, it is possible to come up with a recommendation based on experience. Unless you expect the audience to take notes, you should probably aim for around one slide per minute of the presentation. It can seem like a very long time when you are inexperienced and standing in front of an audience for the first time, but this is where good preparation and practice before the event comes into play. If you’re constantly changing slides every 30 seconds or so, the presentation will seem to flash by in a confusing blur, for the audience. They may lose track of the story and find it difficult to remain focused. Remember, it’s the first time they have seen it – they’re not as familiar as you are with the content, so take your time.
How Much Should I Write On Each Slide?
Do not overdo the text. A slide should be a framework for you to talk around, not something to recite the contents of. Your job is to supply the majority of the words verbally, leaving the slide free from big blocks of text. You might need more than just a few prompts though, as you’ll probably be nervous and forget something. It’s often good to include a word or phrase that you know will trigger a chain of thought for you, that you find easy to discuss, so use the text wisely. It’s not just there to inform the audience – it’s also a platform to assist you in discussing your work, and to help take you through to the next slide.
What Font Size Should I Use?
Text on a slide should be readable at a distance from the screen. As an example, a minimum of 20 or 24 point works well in lecture theatres or smaller seminar rooms, with 36 to 44 point for Headings and say, 28 point for Sub-Headings. If you include graphs, schemes, figures or diagrams ensure that all the text, including graph scales, is large enough to be seen by the audience. Remember that the majority will be sitting quite a distance away. As part of your planning and preparation, you could try it out in an empty lecture theatre beforehand.
I try to include a subject title at the top left of each slide as it can be helpful if any of the audience miss a slide or two.
Should I Use Animation?
Applications like PowerPoint come with all sorts of fancy themes and backgrounds. Please, please, avoid these! Firstly, they cut down the usable area on each slide, and secondly, many of them are not appropriate to a scientific presentation. For a sales talk maybe, but science no. The same goes for animation. Items flying across, off, up, down and round the screen was probably really clever in the 1980’s, but a big no for science today. By all means use animation, it’s a great tool, but restrict it to the more subtle functions like “Appear”, “Disappear” etc. Used in this way it will enhance the smooth flow from slide to slide, and make your presentation appear more professional.
Delivering the Presentation
Nervous? Most people are, especially when doing this for the first few times. The truth is that some people never actually “enjoy” themselves presenting to an audience and being told to “relax” probably doesn’t help much either. But there are a few things you can do.
1. First one is common sense – know your subject and practice. Remember it’s fine to have notes on hand to refer to in case you draw a blank at any point, but if you can do without them, better still.
2. Next, if you find your arm shakes a bit, do not use a laser pointer. It will make it obvious you are nervous and also will make the audience feel queasy with all that wobbling! Avoid coffee beforehand as that can make you jittery too.
3. The first sentence or two is the worst time. After that you get into the stride and the nerves calm down, so practice the first couple of minutes many, many times. If you get off to a good start, the rest will come more easily.
4. Check your timing when you do your practice runs. It’s easy to rush when you are nervous and everyone always talks much faster than the speed at which they prepared, so try to pace yourself. You don’t need to fill every second with words.
5. Leave brief pauses when you move onto the next slide. Remember that the audience will be reading the new slide rather than paying attention to what you are saying, so use this time to compose yourself.
6. Finally, at the end there are usually questions. If you have a friend in the audience then you can prime them with a question that you know you can answer. It’s a good confidence booster. Don’t make it too obvious though!
After the Ordeal!
It’s over, and the warm glow of having got it out of the way is all over you, and the realisation that it really wasn’t as bad as you thought it might be. But do try to get some feedback from as many of the audience as you can. Even if you’re a veteran at presentations, there’s always something you can do better. Believe it or not, you can get to enjoy talking to groups – I really enjoy it now but it only comes with practice, and the realisation that no-one is going to throw things at you, no matter how much you muck it up.
Words of Wisdom
“It’s Only Acting”!! Good Luck and remember that everyone had to do a ‘first talk’ at some time in their academic life.