Preparing the presentation
It’s tempting to spend all your time preparing for a presentation by working on the slides, but the slides are only a visual aid for the presentation. The point of a presentation is to have a presenter! Otherwise you could just make beautiful slides, print them out, and have the audience read them. Nevertheless, spending a fair amount of time making sure your slides support your presentation optimally is a good way to feel safe and in control while presenting. Having a kind of story built into your slides will help you remember what comes next while presenting.
Dress properly for the occasion. Whether you are presenting in a classroom, a conference, or a job talk, you are also presenting yourself to the audience. Avoid wearing casual attire (e.g. hats, tank tops, shorts or flip-flops), and try to wear something a bit more formal. This will also make you feel more confident during the presentation. However, there is no need to dress up with a full suit for class presentations or even many conferences, unless for an academic job talk or a presentation in a business or industry setting.
Before the presentation
Try to check out the presentation venue the day before, or if that is not possible, arrive early with plenty of time to set up and get settled. Nothing is more distracting during a presentation than technical and procedural problems. Here’s an incomplete checklist to go through in the half hour before your presentation:
- Make sure that you can get the projector turned on, that your computer will show the slides, that any links you may have work, that you have your favorite slide clicker, that the slides look good under this lighting, etc. If you can, click through all your slides quickly.
- If you plan to show videos with sound, make sure that your audience will be able to hear them properly.
- Figure out where you’ll stand and whether you can walk around the stage without blocking the projector.
- Enter Do Not Disturb or Airplane mode to avoid notifications.
- If you are presenting your work at a conference or seminar, find out who will introduce you to the audience.
Starting the presentation
If you are speaking at a conference or a seminar, you will likely be introduced; take the stage thanking the host for the nice introduction and the opportunity to present. Then start your presentation by saying anything but the following words: “The title of my presentation is…” – your audience can presumably already read the title of your presentation on your cover slide, and it’s a missed opportunity to excite your audience. Here are a few better examples to start your presentation:
- “I’m excited to tell you about the discoveries we have made how about different clades of Prochlorococcus evolve in different parts of the ocean”
- “Today, I want to show you how we model the local climate and vegetation on the Galapagos islands, and how this allows us to predict how their vegetation will change as a result of climate change”
- “I look forward to telling you about my research on a novel kind of concrete that can withstand much larger temperature fluctuations than what is currently used”
Try to find an opening sentence that makes your audience excited to learn what you’re going to present to them. Once you have figured out a good opening sentence (This is hard! Take your time!), write it down and memorize it; practice it! This will help make you feel secure as you start your presentation because there is no uncertainty – you go on stage and say the words you have rehearsed; by then, some of the stage fright may already have lifted and the rest is relatively smooth sailing.
During the presentation
When presenting, what you say is just as important as how you say it. The content of your talk determines how impactful your talk can be, and your delivery determines how impactful your talk actually is. Without a strong, engaging delivery, you will lose your audience’s attention and miss an opportunity to communicate your content. Effective public speaking combines verbal and nonverbal skills into a compelling presentation, and both skill sets are important enough to warrant their own articles. Here are a few tips to get you started.
- Verbal skills
- Adjust your volume – err on the loud side, as many of us have the tendency to speak too softly (this is true even if you are speaking into a microphone).
- Speak your words clearly and with confidence. Practice unusual or difficult to pronounce words.
- Tailor your delivery – volume, rate, and inflection – to make your presentation easy to follow along.
- Monitor your inflection and avoid monotone speech. This may mean speaking with more melody or gusto or enthusiasm than you are used to.
- Nonverbal skills
- Use eye contact to engage your audience. If it’s a large room, turn your head or even body to talk to all corners of the room, not just the people in the middle. Rather than just scanning the audience, can you take time to make one-on-one eye contact with individuals? Use this as an opportunity to gauge the audience’s level of interest. Seeing how they respond to your slides, transitions, etc. can help you adjust your talk as you go.
- Maintain good posture to feel more confident. Strong body postures (e.g., power poses) convey confidence and a sense of importance during your talk. A straight back and a level chin with your eyes facing the audience will show that you are prepared and ready. Hands on the side and a slightly wider stance command space on the stage and demands attention. Of course, overly dramatic, arrogant, or otherwise off-putting stances and posture should be avoided.
- Emphasize deliberate movements and minimize unnecessary distractions (maximize signal-to-noise). For instance, if you are comparing two concepts, physically weigh them out with your hands to convey the difference as if your hands were a scale. Or, when transitioning between ideas, physically cue the viewers that there is a change in topic by casually walking to the other side of the stage.
(The metaphor of “signal-to-noise ratio” comes from Jean-luc Doumont’s book Trees, Maps, and Theorems.)
Ending the presentation
Just like you want to start strong, you want to end strong so that the audience remembers your key message. Summary slides can be helpful for this, but try to resist the temptation of including too many details. Find the (at most) three most important points and present them as a short and easy to read (and remember!) list, ideally with a striking picture to accompany each point.
Additionally, if you must make acknowledgements to people or funding sources, it is better to be specific with their contributions rather than giving general thanks and to ensure that only those who actually need to be thanked are thanked. You can also mention their contributions at the appropriate moments during the talk. Then, end your presentation with a variation of “And with that, I’ll be happy to take any questions.”
Getting questions after your presentation may feel like you failed in explaining your research properly, but the opposite is true: talks that were difficult to understand often elicit silence, whereas engaging talks will translate to an engaging Q&A afterwards.
Before presenting, prepare for the question and answer part of the talk. Figure out what questions you are likely to get (you can also indicate additional findings during your talk that you are leaving out in the interest of time, and more often than not someone will ask about them) and prepare yourself to answer them. Prepare backup slides that are more technical and that address a specific point. When you hear a question, wait patiently until the questioner has finished speaking. Then repeat the question in your own words:
- “If I understand you correctly, you are asking whether…”, or
- “That’s a great question: does A automatically imply B?”.
Take a breath before answering. This timing will allow other audience members to understand the question and will give you some time to formulate a cogent, coherent response. It is also much better to answer “I don’t know” to a question rather than bluff your way through a response.
There may come a time where you do not present your work in a physical seminar, but instead do so remotely. Many of the aspects discussed here still hold: make sure to test your setup (e.g., try sharing your screen in a Zoom conference with a friend), plan and practice your first few sentences, and so on. However, there are a few things to consider when presenting remotely; see this article for a more extensive list of tips.
- Since you most likely cannot see your audience members, it is difficult to gauge the engagement and level of understanding of your audience. Consider adding breakpoints during your presentation to allow for questions. Wait longer than feels comfortable. If you have a moderator, communicate to them how you will take questions during your talk.
- It is even more important to emphasize the focal part of your slide to support your presentation. Since you will need to rely more on verbal cues than nonverbal cues, use your voice to highlight important sentences, e.g., by inflection or repetition.
- Consider making your slides a bit more explicit in case of a bad connection. Adding arrows, legends, or short descriptions will allow your audience to follow along even if they cannot hear you for a second or two.
- Videos often do not work well in tele-conferences. If you must show a video, either send out a link so your audience can download the video beforehand and watch it locally. Better yet, if possible, show a few key still frames from your video instead.
A short primer: How to give a good scientific talk
A longer seminar for scientific presentations: Designing effective scientific presentations
A longer presentation for presentations more generally: How to give a great research talk