Tips for your Presentation

We've all been there: attending a presentation, enduring it instead of enjoying it, or having your brain stalling instead of revving up, or leaving away confused instead of enlightened. Do you want this to happen to your audience?

First of all, lets have a look at some good counter-examples (don't be afraid, they are funny) What not to do and Chicken chicken chicken (see also its .pdf).

Here are some things I do to try to avoid this happening for people attending my presentations. In summary:

  • Know your audience
  • A presentation is a story
  • The slide or the presenter
  • Max 7 bullets per slide
  • The medium is the message
  • Slide numbers are mandatory
  • Make your contribution clear.

Below I explain what I mean by this.

In the mean time, some websites that are related to presentations: (I just wish I had enough time to to keep up with them). And we should not forget death by powerpoint, figuratively and literally.

Please note: these ideas are not mine, I have gathered them through the years, and have since forgotten the sources of many of them, my apologies for not being able to attribute.

Know your audience

Know the people you are going to present to. If you tell them stuff they already know, they will fall asleep. If you wrongly assume that they know stuff which you are extending/changing/criticising/… they cannot follow and will be lost and confused. They may even become tired of trying to figure out what you are talking about, and fall asleep.

In the end, you are not presenting for yourself, you are presenting because you need to communicate something to the audience. Knowing them ensures that you can give them a message without boring them, and having them understand the message.

A presentation is a story

Seeing a presentation that talks about a bunch of facts you can get from a text is boring. As a presenter you are not standing in front of many people to read statements out loud. You are there to communicate a message. The best way to communicate a message is through a story, that's just how humans are built. We grow up with stories, having them read to us, inventing them when playing. Grown up, we watch TV/Movies, read books, blogs, … because our brain works with stories.

So, what is it that you want to tell the audience? What is your story? Note that a presentation is a story, and not multiple stories. So if you have many things to say, they must fit one story. Have this clear and you can make an engaging presentation that people will follow until the (happy?) end.

The slide or the presenter

People cannot multi-task. If you don't agree with this statement, try and convince me otherwise while I am playing Galaga. What this means is that the audience can either read your slide, ignoring what you are saying, or listening to you while not reading your slide. In my experience, people read the slides. If it takes them a long time they can not follow the presenter anymore, because they have lost the thread of the story.

So make your slides such that people don't read them immediately when they pop up.

  • Full sentences are a bad idea.
  • Lots of text on a slide is a bad idea.
  • Put a few key items on a slide.
  • The fewer the better.

The above is an example, although I think the last 2 bullets are redundant. In a presentation I would remove the last bullet.

Max 7 bullets per slide

Following up on the previous point, there is a limit on the amount of information you can put on a slide. Studies show that the human brain can process maximum up to 7 items at the same time. So from there it is easy to conclude 'Max 7 bullets per slide'. I don't agree with that. The main point of a slide is to transfer one idea to the audience. You should not need 7 bullet points to transfer one idea, you should do it in less.

Remember: It is OK to have a slide with one bullet point! Some people have an alternate style, with zero bullet points. They just have one or two pieces of text. This works well as a presentation, but I consider it more for experienced presenters.

Having few bullets per slide is not easy, sometimes there are a lot of interrelated things that you need to talk about. It is tempting in those cases to make a bunch of slides filled with 7 bullet points each. Try to avoid that. One way is to group items in sub-topics and present one sub-topic per slide.

The medium is the message

Thanks to McLuhan for this: The medium is the message. There are 2 consequences to this:

A presentation is not a paper is not an essay is not a book is not a movie is not … anything else but a presentation. Don't read from a prepared text, don't just read what's on the slides, talk to the audience. Use your slides as supporting material for what you want to say.

The form of your slides colors the perception of the audience. Here is what they will think:

  • pointless animations + clipart + many different transitions + non-relevant diagrams = a presentation with no content, boring.
  • only text, no diagrams or animations to explain tough concepts = too difficult, I cannot understand this.

The key is to use the diagrams, animations, pictures, … to make a point, to explain things. Especially if you are treating a tough concept (for your audience, see first tip).

Slide numbers are mandatory

Imagine the question and answers section after the talk. An audience member asks: “Could you clarify what you said on the slide about foo, the one before you talk about bar …” You try to find the slide. “No, the other one …” You keep searching through the slides for 5 minutes until he says… “Yes that's the one!”

Just put slide numbers on your slide. It's easy, it's fast, it avoids confusion.

Make your contribution clear

Usually when we are presenting, we are talking about research. In research we usually build on related work, so we start the presentation with this background material and after that talk about what we have done. It is fundamental that the audience knows where in the presentation related work stops, and where your contribution begins. Otherwise your presentation only serves to create confusion.

Ideally the slides are explicit on the division related work / contribution. While presenting, you should at least talk about related work as 'previous work' and 'they did X', and for your work say 'my (our) work' and 'I (we) did X'.

The conclusion slide is a last moment where you can do this. Do not make a thank you slide!! Keep your conclusion slide as the last one, and keep it on screen during Q&A. This way the slide stays visible for a very long time, burning your message into the viewer's retinas.

I am always trying to make better, more engaging presentations, so this page is a work in progress, and contributions are welcome!