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10 Tips for Better Presentations

I have been at a conference today and don’t have too much time to write this, so this will be a quick article. After watching lots of speakers of varying competence, I thought that it would be good to outline some tips for great presentations. Speaking is an integral part of a scientist’s job, and honing these skills is great for both your career and your confidence. Here are my 10 cents worth – feel free to add more of your own tips in the comments field below:

    1. Use the minimum information possible in your slides to get the message across. Review your titles, text and figures and ask yourself what you can remove without losing the message.
    2. Use bullet points in your slides to prompt you (never read from a script!!!). Keep the bulleted text to a few words; don’t use sentences or you will just spend the talk reading them out, which is never inspiring.
    3. Use images as often as possible. Humans are naturally drawn to visual stimuli far more than text. If you can say it in a picture, do it. If you can add a picture to emphasize or complement your point then do so. Check out Flickr’s creative commons pool for millions of free-use images.
    4. Walk them through the thread of your talk. Your audience will have no idea of the path you want to take them down so an introduction slide will help them to follow your thought process. Refer back to the introduction often during the talk to show them what point you are at (and how close to the end you are, which will help keep their attention if they are getting bored).
    5. Pitch it right. Who is your audience? What do they know about your field? Answer these questions and pitch your talk accordingly. If you get it wrong you will lose a chunk of your audience straight away. NEVER say things like “as you know”; someone in the audience might NOT know and statements like this will lose them instantly (… can you tell I’ve been at a conference slightly outside my field today??!)
    6. Accept that you are going to be nervous and embrace it. There will always be some degree of nervousness before a talk. Don’t dismiss it, don’t deny it, but use the nervous energy to drive you. Have you ever been at a talk where you wanted the speaker to fail? Thought not. Remember, the audience is always on your side.
    7. Take control of the situation. A backup plan if the slides fail, a spare laser pointer, checking out that there is nothing for you to fall over on the stage. These are all your responsibility and talking control will increase your confidence. Don’t leave it to the organizers to sort out. If something goes wrong, YOU will be the embarrassed one in the spotlight. Talk to the organizers before your talk, check out the stage and make sure everything is in place well before you start.
    8. Make eye contact, with the audience, use a conversational voice and be animated. Ever been at a talk where the speak fixes on a point on the wall at the back of the room, and talks in monotone? I have, it’s not pretty… and it’s certainly not interesting.
    9. Make them laugh. This is quite a difficult one. I am no stand-up comic but I always try to introduce at least some light relief in my talks. Use whatever you can, but don’t make it too cheesy.
    10. Have your cake and eat it. After giving a presentation, grab yourself a big slice of cake (or whatever floats your boat) and find a quiet spot to indulge and reflect. It’s a stressful thing you have just done so a short recovery period is deserved, but more importantly you should think about how the talk went. Think of what went well and log it away for future use. Think of what went wrong too. Remember this is a learning experience and practice makes perfect. Think of the things you would have done differently and use them to improve the next presentation you do.

I hope these tips have been useful to you and that those of you with additional thoughts will contribute to the discussion in the comments. Happy talking.

Photo: Grant Neufeld

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