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Preparing an Effective Presentation
Professional Development - Tips to Build Your Career
Preparing an Effective Presentation
Brad R. Conrad, PhD, Director of SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma
Crafting an effective presentation has significant implications on how we best communicate science and can help propel a career to new heights. It is important to understand the keys to effectively presenting and communicating your work.
Some of the keys include: identifying your goal in giving the presentation, recognizing your target audience, transmitting a clear and consistent message, developing a clean logical argument, and seeking external feedback on your presentation. As an example, if you are going to a physics conference, you will present information in a much different way than if you were at a job interview or even an engineering meeting. Recognizing the small differences in mindset, audience, and background knowledge can make all the difference between an effective and ineffective presentation. The information below can assist you in crafting your presentation.
Before you start
- Remember that you’ve spent weeks, months, or even years learning about your topic, but you need to explain it to someone in only a few minutes. To do this you must motivate the audience to pay attention. Keep in mind that you are already vested in the project and they are a blank slate. Relate the work to your audience, and explain in very clear terms why they should pay attention.
- The audience must understand your message and if you lose them along the way, most physicists will not believe your work, nor will they be interested in the results. Rather than focusing on the punchline, remember, like a good joke, the setup is often the most important part.
- Give the audience a very short and clear takeaway. They won’t remember most of what you tell them, but you do want them to remember why your presentation is important and any key results you might have. To do this you must repeat yourself in several different ways, visually and verbally. Your presentation should consistently reinforce your takeaway(s).
People can only absorb information so fast. Thus, it is best to have a clear message in each slide or section. Just as with writing, you want to link the parts of a presentation together so that a clear logical path exists and is easy for your audience to follow. I recommend starting any discussion by saying why what you are about to explain is important and providing a sense of context. Explain any background information, setup, and theory that is needed to understand the work. Clearly delineate between data, analysis and results, as it’s not always obvious to people new to an experiment. Make sure conclusions are clear, punchy, and to the point.
Set a Presentation Goal
It’s perfectly fine for a presentation to have several goals, but you should make sure you identify the key result of your presentation and can voice that key result in a few sentences: aim for about 20 seconds. You want people to remember your work long after they speak with you. Common goals include:
- Sharing a key scientific result
- Highlighting a new publication
- Updating the community on the progress of your research
- Seeking feedback from colleagues
- Distributing the best practices or techniques
- Educating people about new physics
- Marketing yourself and your skills
- Identifying new collaborators
- Audience types
Before you make a presentation, know who you will be talking to. Will they be familiar with your techniques and terms? How much background might they need to understand your results? Common audiences include:
- General public
- K-12 students
- High school and college students
- Colleagues within the field
- Experts within the field
- Colleagues and experts in neighboring fields
- Funding agencies or outside evaluators
Once you have established your presentation’s goal and you know who your audience is, identify a clear message you want them to remember. You probably would want colleagues, experts in your field, and scientists/engineers from different fields to take away different things from your presentation. What do you want them to remember?
- Details of a technique
- A key result or realization
- The broader implication of your work to the field
- A new research area
- An interest in collaboration
The key to a good presentation is a linear thought progression for the audience.
- The chronological timeline of an experiment is usually not the best way to present your findings. Explain your work with the shortest logical path.
- Experiments are messy and often convoluted. Often, you’ll do things out of order or go down experimental dead ends which are not helpful to your audience. Since you were figuring things out, you probably did many things that didn’t directly contribute to your scientific argument. Be mindful to only present pertinent information.
- You don’t need to show the audience every experiment, data set, or experimental curiosity. Stick to the message.
- Be clear, concise, and contain your argument to one logical flow. Asides and detours are best left out of a verbal presentation.
Whereas in a book or article readers can skip sections, your audience cannot pick and choose what to pay attention to. They have to assume that everything you are conveying is equally important and vital to the overall message.
Revision is vital for a good presentation. The only way to refine a presentation is to craft one and present it to a critical and responsive audience. You need feedback from a presentation to improve it, because most of us are not very good judges of ourselves. Here are elements you can modify:
- Time spent on each section or slide
- Amount of detail given
- Background information and depth of discussion
- Slide or section information density
- Graphical data representation
- How takeaway messages are highlighted
When you seek feedback, present to people inside and outside your field. They will often identify very different aspects of your presentation for consideration. Also, try to avoid presenting to the same people multiple times. The best feedback is going to be from someone who has not seen your presentation before.
The way you present yourself during a presentation is just as important as the actual presentation. Dress to impress. In short, you want to be as well-dressed, if not better, than most of your audience. Business casual is often a safe recommendation for most conferences, while business formal is more appropriate for job interviews. Also, most people have nervous tendencies when they present. The best way to identify your distracting habits is to have someone videotape you presenting, then watch yourself to identify any aspects you don’t like. This may feel awkward at first, but it’s a very useful tool.
- Speak slowly.
- Maintain audience eye contact.
- Know your inflection and facial expressions matter.
- Display your enthusiasm.
Good luck! With these tips your next presentation should be a piece of cake.
FOUR COMMON MISTAKES WHEN PRESENTING:
- For a talk, limit your total slides to less than one slide per minute (e.g. no more than 10 slides for a 10-minute talk). For a poster, have clear sections and titles. You want to give the audience time to think about your statements and not overload them with information.
- Lengthy derivations and lots of equations are not as helpful as you might think. It is often better to focus on the implications of physical relationships (equations) and leave derivations for detailed papers.
- Graphs, figures, and tables should focus on and deliver a singular message.
- Avoid paragraphs of text and stick to phrases or bullet points. People don’t tend to read lots of text.