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Effective Presentations 101

Bad lecturer

Think back to the worst lecture you ever attended in college. What made it so bad? Poor organization? Mumbling? Bad pacing? Visuals that were too small to read? Whatever the reason(s), it almost certainly wasn't because the professor wasn't smart. In fact, sometimes the smartest people can be the worst lecturers because they're simply unable to get out of their own heads and consider what the audience needs.

Effective communication is critically important in science and engineering. There are lots of smart people in your field, and communication skills are often what sets apart those who get the job offer, the promotion, or the funding. Some people have a natural talent for this, but I truly believe anyone can become an excellent communicator. Like any skill, it can be developed through learning and deliberate practice.

My primary area of focus is oral presentations, so that's what I'm going to cover here. But many of the same principles hold true for other types of technical communication. For more information about written genres, check out resources from Caltech's Hixon Writing Center.

The Essential Elements

At the most fundamental level, your job as a presenter is to do two things: (1) transform complicated technical information into a cohesive and compelling story, and then (2) present that story in an engaging way. To accomplish this, you need to consider (1) what you say and (2) how you say it. Here's how I conceptualize the essential elements of an effective presentation:

The elements of effective presentations: good organization based on a story, strong central message, tailored content, dynamic delivery, effective visual aids, and rehearsal

This model can serve as a sort of checklist when you're developing and refining a presentation, to make sure you've covered all your bases. For a more detailed step-by-step guide, click here. But in brief, here are my recommendations for how to develop an effective presentation:

The first and most critical step in developing an effective presentation is to have a clearly defined plan. I liken this to the process of building a house. Technical information on its own is just a pile of construction materials -- all the important stuff is there, but it's completely unusable in its current form. To make a functional house/presentation, you as the builder must put those materials together in a thoughtful and well-organized way.

And of course when building a house, one doesn't just start hammering things together at random. There needs to be a plan. The approach I like to use when planning a presentation is to TAG it. That is, I ask these three strategic questions:

  • T - What TYPE of presentation is it?
    Note any key details about the format (e.g., poster, powerpoint, whiteboard, etc), context (e.g., conference, qualifying exam, group meeting, department seminar, etc), and expectations (e.g., time limit, QA, etc). This information may seem painfully obvious, but I've seen countless lectures where the presenter was clearly reusing materials from a very different situation and had to skip over lots of content, leaving the audience confused and frustrated.
  • A - Who is the AUDIENCE?
    Consider who they are (e.g., faculty, peers in your sub-field, broader scientific community, etc), what they know, and what they care about.
  • G - What is your GOAL?
    Having a clear purpose in mind is crucial! Otherwise, you're just wasting everyone's time. Potential goals could be to get feedback on your research findings, persuade people to support your proposal, convince someone to hire you, etc.

Answering the strategic TAG questions will give you a better sense of focus as you move forward with developing your presentation. As you become a more experienced presenter, this planning process becomes almost automatic. But if you're still a beginner, it can help to actually write out your answers. This only takes a few minutes, and it's well worth the effort.

Strategic planning example

Organization & Story

The content of your presentation should be organized in a logical way that the audience can follow. Often a visual outline/roadmap can help. In general, it's best to follow an hourglass structure in which the content starts fairly broad (background info about the topic and why it matters), progressively narrows down to technical details, and then gets broad again (connect details to the larger context and reiterate importance) to end on a strong, memorable note.

Story arc

And remember, you're ultimately telling a story, which I define as structure + emotion. In other words, don't just organize your technical information in a logical way -- tap into our emotions and make us care. You can create an emotional arc by, for example, introducing tension in the form of an intriguing question or an unsolved problem, and then resolving the tension by explaining how you addressed this issue. A story-based approach will help the audience stay engaged and better remember the information you presented.

Central Message

Every presentation needs a clear central message, ideally boiled down to one single sentence. If yours is multiple sentences, try to get even more focused. The central message should not be a vague topic statement (e.g., "I'm going to tell you about quantum computers") -- it should be the answer to a specific question about that topic (e.g., "Quantum computers work by..." or "Quantum computers are promising because...").

Your central message should be informed by your strategic GOAL and strongly supported by the details of your presentation. Frequently check for this alignment (more info about that here). Are there tangential details that don't directly relate to the central message? Cut them out or move them to supplementary slides (or, revise your central message). It doesn't mean those details aren't important -- they're simply not functioning to support the specific story you're telling in this presentation.

Tailoring Content

Effective presentations are tailored for the specific audience and circumstances defined in your TAG questions above. Key things to tailor are the overall level of detail / technical sophistication, use of technical terminology and field-specific jargon, and how the topic is framed (i.e., how do you make it relevant for your audience)?

Example of overall outline

Delivery

Everyone's presentation style is unique, and it's not necessary (or sufficient) to be an energetic extrovert in order to be an effective presenter. The general goal is to be engaging and dynamic, through both verbal and non-verbal communication. You can engage with the audience by making eye contact and scanning the room so everyone feels included. Incorporating some thoughtful movement also helps keep the audience interested (find a happy medium between stoic rigidity and nervous fidgeting). In terms of your vocal, try to incorporate some dynamics, and be mindful of your pacing.

Visual Aids

I love visual communication and have a lot more to say about that here. In a nutshell, an effective presentation should have well-designed slides (clearly organized and not overloaded with information) and visuals that are as clean and simple as possible (avoiding clutter, visual jargon, or hard-to-read elements). Moreover, the chosen visuals should add value, i.e., they should directly support the point you're trying to make on that particular slide.

Rehearsal

Time

Perhaps the most important reason to rehearse your presentation is to get the timing right. You'll likely have a time limit, and everyone hates it when a presenter goes over time. The key to completing your presentation within the allotted time is to cover the right amount of content. You can find many helpful rules of thumb online (e.g., number of slides, word count, etc.), but the best way to gauge your timing is to practice out loud (so important! your spoken pace is different from the pace in your head). If you find your presentation is too long, DO NOT FIX THIS BY RUSHING. Trim the content instead.

An additional benefit of rehearsal is that it helps you get more comfortable with your presentation. You can smooth out rough spots in your voiceover and work on refining your delivery. Sufficient practice can also help you feel less nervous -- which in turn makes the audience feel more comfortable and receptive to your presentation (for more info on reducing nervousness, click here).


CC-BY license

This article by Dr. Robyn Javier is licensed under CC BY 4.0