Preparing Effective Presentations

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The purpose of a presentation is communication of the main ideas from your research.

Effective presentations make learning more likely. They also enhance the perception of the presenter in the eyes of the professional community. Boring, ineffective, or overly long presentations are quickly forgotten.

When you have prepared your presentation, practice it as many times as possible, and practice at least once in front of friends or family. Practicing will make you comfortable with your material so you don’t have to consult your notes as much, and you will know exactly how long each part takes. It will also help you refine your content so that you emphasize the most important points.

Length:

Academic presentations at conferences are typically limited to 10-15 minutes with 5 minutes allowed for questions, but this changes from conference to conference so you should make sure to check. Presentations at the Celebration of Undergraduate Research, for example, are 10 minutes long with 3 minutes for questions.

You will need to carefully budget your time and practice to ensure that you can complete your presentation within the time allotted. Practicing your presentation with a timer will help make sure you can consistently stick to the allotted time.

On average, you should plan on spending 1-2 minutes per slide. Changing slides frequently will help you avoid spending too long on any one part of your presentation and will keep your listeners engaged.

Content:

Usually a presentation is like a very short version of a research paper. It should include:

  • Who you are and who else helped with the project (co-researchers, funding sources, advisors).
  • What problem or issue you studied and why it matters.
  • The most important things you found out. Briefly include how you got your results but don’t go into too much detail. This is often where people include too much detail that is only of interest to those working on a similar project, so keep it to 1-2 sentences.
  • What’s next? How could someone else use this information, what else should be done on the subject, or how could these results be applied to other work?

It often helps to start by answering these questions as though you were talking to a friend before you try to write a presentation. This will help you keep to the most important points.

Delivery:

Poor delivery can ruin an otherwise well planned presentation. Practicing in front of a mirror or recording yourself with your phone or computer camera can help you catch problems before you present publicly.

Good presenters:

  • Stand up straight and remember not to fold their arms across their chests.
  • Speak slowly, clearly, and loudly.
  • Make eye contact with the audience or even interact with those present.
  • Use simple words and short sentences to make their presentations easy to follow.
  • Use stories or examples when possible.
  • Avoid jargon or unnecessary vocabulary that only those in the field understand.
  • Make and use notes, but don’t read directly from them word for word. Good speakers do not just read their slides out loud!
  • Don’t apologize for images, text, or content of the presentation. The audience knows all research is ongoing so there is no need to apologize for there being further steps or more research to do. Apologizing for bad or incorrect content on the slides, on the other hand, suggests that the speaker has not prepared.

Using Visuals:

Most presenters accompany their presentation with a handout or powerpoint. These allow you to include more details and to provide visuals or data that support your research. However, often presenters try to include too much. A good powerpoint or handout should not substitute for the presentation, so it should not repeat information that you say aloud and you should not read directly from it.

To make a good powerpoint:

  • Use large fonts so people sitting at the back of a room can read it. 20-point font, in a simple style like Arial or another sans-serif type, is a good choice. If you can’t read it from 10 feet away when it’s on your laptop, there’s a good chance someone sitting at the back of a conference room can’t either.
  • Limit the text to 8 lines per slide; try to use images or diagrams wherever possible in place of text.
  • Keep graphs, charts and tables simple and legible – highlight the most relevant data using colors or cut the rest out. Avoid equations! They are usually not necessary to understand the results and you won’t have time to explain them.
  • Use contrasting colors: either light-colored text on a dark background or the reverse. Even if the colors contrast a lot, using two similarly saturated colors will strain people’s eyes.
  • Avoid including content on the edges of the slide. Many screens cut off the top, bottom, or one edge of a slide because the projector is not angled perfectly.
  • Keep it simple. You know your material, but it is all new to your listeners. Avoid decorations and cute effects that distract from your key points.
  • If you need to discuss the same slide at two different points, put a copy of the slide in at both points in the talk. Do not try to skip around in your slides. This is confusing to you and to your audience.
  • Preview your slides carefully on the biggest screen you have access to. Some things will jump out at you on a large screen that you never noticed sitting in front of your laptop. It’s a good idea to have a friend look at it too!

You can review additional resources here.