Monday, July 20, 2015

10 tips to give killer presentations

Presenting what we are doing in profession is one of the most critical skills that we need to have. If we cannot communicate what we do well, chances are we will not sell our work high enough to get funds, publications, and possibly we will not be at a manager/leading position in future. While I am not an expert in presentation skills, I hope I can give you a few tips that are useful. I wrote it for scientists but of course the tips can be easily generalized.  

1-Be excited and confident about your work: If you are not excited, if you don’t care, why should others care about what you do? You should express your enthusiasm and feel that your work is one of the most elegant ever conducted in the field. Of course be yourself and tell your story as you really feel. Do not forget, you are the top expert in the world for the experiments that you performed. All of the audience is there just to learn from you.

Speaking slowly and clearly and giving a few seconds pause before the important slides will bring you the attention of the audience. Also use your body language to demonstrate your excitement. TED talks have many inspiring examples, have a look at them if you haven’t already. A few samples that I like:

2-Make eye contact and focus on pleasant people: It is typical to have some people sleeping or people who shake their heads in disapprovement of what you are talking about. Do not look at these people but rather focus on pleasant people who have eye contact with you and who have look curious. You can choose 2-3 of such people (ideally at least one at the front and one at the back) and shift your gaze from one to another. Do not shift your gaze from one to another while you’re in the middle of a sentence though. This is important to give impression that you are having personal conversation with them, not speaking at a crowd. 

3-Do not give it to chance, be fully equipped and test your gear: I am sure you all witnessed speakers with videos that are not working, or shifted text and images. Each presentation is a one-time chance, hence, do not let others steer your fate. To avoid such catastrophes, bring all your equipment including your laptop, charger, pointer, Mac adaptor etc. If the hosts insist on using the seminar room computer, politely let them know that you have images/videos that can only be shown on your computer. Even if it takes a bit of time to hook up your computer, do not give it to chance. Ideally, go to the seminar room a few hours before and check everything. If not, you would still have some time to fix major issues. Finally, if you are showing video files, put all video files into the same folder as the presentation file and insert them from that folder. You can copy this folder to another computer if needed and have the video files carried, which can also be played outside of power point.

4-Use simple, organized and accurate slides: Do not overload slides with text and images that cannot be seen from everywhere in the room. Do not have anything on the slide that you don’t mention. I also found that making transition slides prepares the audience to upcoming “important” data. For example just a simple sentence in the middle of a new slide: “We then asked the question if blocking A would cause B”. Check very carefully not to have any spelling mistakes and different font sizes. Ideally, do not use more than 2 colors for text (one for title one for the content). Check for the consistency: for example, use comma, dot or nothing at the end of each bullet point consistently. Carefully align your text and images like a figure in a paper. Do not copy-paste paper figures into the presentation. Use the original images without annotations and enlarge them well in your slides. While most of the article figures are in portrait orientation, your slides are in landscape; hence copy-pasted images are typically very small. In addition, if you give the impression that you just copy-pasted images from here and there, the audience will be turned off by thinking that they will not learn something new from the presentation. Hence, they can sleep during your talk to get ready for the next one and read your paper when they are at home (if ever).

Visuals (colorful images, videos) are good but do not overdo it. Similarly, too many transition affects and clicks on one slide are destructive and give the impression that you try to impress the audience with some effects rather than real content. Hence, use only 1-2 of such visuals to draw attention to the most important information.

5-Be unique: If you are in a symposium when it is your turn, change the position of where the previous speakers stood. Most speakers will stay close the computer or behind the desk. Go to the other side of the podium to give the signal that something different is coming.
Use widescreen slide templates (16:9 or 16:10), which look more professional and more unique than 4:3. Make sure to have large images and text flowing left to right. If you use widescreen, you also need to make sure that the projector can show your presentation adequately. Again, do not to give it to chance, also prepare the 4:3 format and use it if needed.
I also like to use a unique background color. If previous users are using mostly white, then use black. You guessed it right, that means you might need to prepare two versions with different backgrounds. I personally always use black, since the majority of speakers use white and images look better on black background.
Do not copy-paste other’s drawings/data. If you need to mention them, use your own words or illustration. This is your presentation and you are there to tell what you think and believe, not the others. Again, if you are there to present something unique, the audience will quickly sense it and give you their attention.

6-Repeat questions and address them honestly: It is always a good idea to repeat/rephrase the questions that you are asked. This will make sure that 1) you understood the question correctly, 2) everyone heard the questions and 3) will give you time to think of the best answer.
If you don’t know the answer, state clearly that you do not know it and speculate if you have got an idea e.g. ”I don’t have the data to answer this question but If I were to speculate….”. If you feel that the questioner is openly attacking, don’t be defensive, smile and acknowledge that this is the best you can tell based on your data and you are happy to discuss this in more depth after the seminar.

7-Get prepared well: Ideally finish the preparation of your slides days 1-2 weeks before the presentation and make 3-5 rehearsals. Buy some pizza or drinks and invite your colleagues to listen to your presentation. Ask their genuine feedback on your presentation (not their praises, this will not help you in front of real audience). Volunteer to present at every opportunity to practice your presentation skills.

8-Simplify and repeat: Regardless of the level of your audience (even if there are many experts), you should simplify your story and give clear and easy background. In a typical scientific seminar, the majority of the audience looses its interest already at the introduction. Do not let this happen. Simplify the background information and questions that you would like to address. Clearly repeat your major conclusion at the end of the respective slide with a sentence and prepare section summaries to make the audience ready for the next part. Ideally, even if they sleep up to this point, they should be able to follow you after hearing the section summary. You should make clear that this slide is the most important slide so far and they should follow it. For example, you can say “Please wake up all (with a smile), here are the core findings so far”.  

9-Acknowledge contributors and experts: People will expect your acknowledgment even if they slightly contributed to your work. Ideally, put their photos and read their contributions and names. If time is very limited, acknowledge the major contributors and write the name of others on the acknowledgement slide. Also try to keep this slide projected while you address the questions.
If you are in a symposium, check the list of attendees and if there are experts in your field, mention their name. For example, as XYZ (who is sitting in the audience) elegantly showed… they are most probably your reviewers, praising their names is the best that you can do to get their approval of your science. In addition, if you can talk to them later, they will be more likely to give you good tips that can elevate the quality of your work.

10-Be aware of  the time: Be aware of the time and make sure to finish your presentation on time. Importantly, make sure that your audience knows that you are in control of time. In the middle of your presentation, you may say something like “We are perfectly on time” or “We will have a good amount of time for discussions” which can stimulate people to think about a question to ask. A presentation with lots of questions/discussions is perceived more impactful than a presentation that barely finishes with just a few or no questions. Actually, if you want to make additional impact, it may be better to finish the presentation a few minutes earlier, to have more time for discussion. During the QA, observe how many people raised their hands for questions and address the questions to shuffle the remaining time. Typically, after rephrasing the question, a brief answer to the point would be the most efficient when there are many questions. In case of a few questions, you may elongate the answer and give time to the audience to think of the next question. In such cases, going back to important result / summary slides may remind the audience of the major points. In case of no questions -which normally should not happen if the talk was clear and stimulating enough- you may ask a question to yourself by saying “while you think of your questions, I want to answer a question that I always have been asked….”.

I hope that I could give you some tips how to improve your presentation skills. I would also like to advise you to go to seminars often and pay particular attention to successful scientists, which are typically also very good presenters. There is always something to learn and improve for all of us.

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