Honing those presentation skills

I’ve recently had the opportunity to present a talk to a small group of people from my department, as well as a pretty important visiting professor. Before that, I did another presentation for a “journal club”, when I was one entire month into my PhD. I knew both of these were coming up for a while so had plenty of time to prepare (and worry and stress about them). Some days it felt like all I did was prepare for the first presentation only to then spend all my time preparing for another one. However, I got a lot out of it. There’s nothing like the impending need to perform socially in an intellectual environment to motivate you to work out what in the world you think you want to do for the 3 years of your PhD and get a handle on some of that key literature. I really think that if I hadn’t had those to deal with, I would be a lot further behind in terms of my specific ideas.

But anyway, I’m just going to jot down some thoughts I had along the way, on what I think makes a good presentation. You really see other people’s presentations from a different angle when you have one coming up yourself and you learn so much more from them than just the content of what they are presenting.

Starting:

Finding the motivation to start early enough to do a really good presentation can involve doing something small and really simple just to get your teeth in and once you have made that first step, let the Zeigarnik Effect help you out. That first step is actually quite easy as you’ve got the joy of choosing the perfect theme and your first and last slides will be a breeze.

By far the easiest thing to do is to use a previous presentation and modify it. Obviously, this only works if any of its content is re-usable for the one you are doing next.

In any case, choosing a sensible theme/colour scheme is really important. Having a consistent sleek finish with a splash of colour but not an overwhelming colour scheme makes you seem that much more organised, professional and clear. There is nothing wrong with black & white (whichever way around) so long as you have that splash on top or down the side and include appropriate and relevant figures, tables and images to brighten it up. Avoid vibrant colours, like your standard blue, green and red as text (or the dreaded yellow), especially in combinations. You want people to be able to look at the thing, right? Avoid the shadow effects in your text if you actually want people to be able to read it and make  sure your font size is big enough for those people in the back.

The title slide needs a nice snappy and clear title. Remember not to read it out loud when you start your talk but summarise/paraphrase the topic in a slightly different way for your very literate audience. Don’t forget to include your name, the name of the event you are presenting at (if at all interesting) and add in any affiliations and logos of your research group, department, university etc. which demonstrate you are part of a greater whole and give audience members the context of your background & funding.

Essentials:

Think about your audience. Think of them as individuals, even if you are at a specialist event. Their understanding of the background of your talk will vary. Some might be wizened academics, some might be making their first steps in your particular field. They may not know those acronyms you could define in your dreams. Do not assume anything. Remember, when you assume, you make an ass of u and me. Give a concise and clear introduction. Explain key concepts with a quick diagram/image or just a description. Define the acronyms; if they take too much space on the slides, write the abbreviated version but say the whole thing out loud the first few times.

Outlines get taught in school for a reason. If your audience can see where you are going with your progression of ideas, they will pay better attention and not feel confused if you change track. If you are going to be discussing a variety of things, an overview/aims slide embedded in the body of the presentation at appropriate points helps a lot with this and gives you structure during writing as well.

Each slide should have something pretty on it – something more than a wall of text, which is incredibly daunting and boring to look at, even if your research/subject is the most exciting thing under the sun. Google images are very helpful (though beware what you type in there as very odd things come out) and spare a thought for copyright and citing the image source. Complicated explanations are so much easier if you have a simple diagram, both for you to remember how to say them without reading and also for your audience to listen to and understand; for this, I sincerely recommend not using powerpoint smart art, which should really be called frustrating art, in my experience. Try using the insert shapes option and grouping them together instead. Tables & graphs with data are obviously very cool & necessary in their own right.

Condensing your thoughts:

I usually start by writing out whole ideas on the slides in bullet points. I then go through the “first draft” of the presentation and cut out ideas into the notes section, shortening the sentences. Things to look for are words like “however”, “also” and basically any grammatical words. I try not to have any full sentences and avoid punctuation; phrases and key words are best.

This last step generally takes the form of many iterations, each hopefully improving the talk but also making you more familiar with the content with each run through, making it less terrifying to take out all those precious words. Be merciless but practice enough so you know what you want to say.

Ending:

Don’t forget the references and acknowledgements – certainly in science, you did not do all the thinking and work alone. You are standing on the shoulders of giants and you need to thank all the people on your team and those who helped you along the way, while avoiding plagiarising the literature.

Also, some really great advice humorously presented by the awesome Scicurious can be found here.

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