There are piles of books, tons of pamphlets, and a wide array of websites focused on how to give a good scientific presentation. So how am I, a classic introvert who gets nervous about speaking in general, qualified to tell you anything better or different than them? Simply put: I used to give bad presentations—really, really bad ones—with terrible Powerpoint templates, feeling constant unease while I stumbled over my words from nervousness, and overly-aggressive laser pointer usage as an outlet for my nervous energy. After an underwhelming PhD qualifying exam presentation, I set out to become better at presenting. I spent a good deal of time trying different approaches, pulling useful parts out from the heaps of hints and tips and listening to great scientific presentations before I figured out the method that worked best for me. I soon learned that there’s no such thing as bad presenters: we can all become good ones, but for some of us it takes more work than others. I then stopped just presenting my research and instead focused on how to tell the story of my work in a way that allowed me to share my science in the best way possible. I’ve now compiled the tricks and tips I’ve accumulated into a tried-and-true method: The Five Easy* Steps for a Perfect** Presentation!
*Easy? Nothing good in life comes that easy. And neither are presentations, for the 99% of us that aren’t naturally comfortable with public speaking. But it can still be done, so read on!
**Perfect meaning you’ll share your story in an impactful and memorable way, not that you’ll deliver every word with perfection or not stumble over anything. Because the story is what’s important and the story is what they’ll remember.
While the steps are easy, they are a bit long-winded in written form. So today we’ll focus on the preliminary steps towards a perfect presentation before you start to make your slides and tell your story.
Step -1. Read the book Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds (or just browse his blog)
Like I said, before we get to the 5 Easy* Steps, there’s a few things you need to get sorted before you go to your computer and open Powerpoint. It may seem like it will take up a lot of time, but the steps that you do to prepare yourself for the main event are like stretching before a run: easy to forget and may sometimes seem inconsequential, yet essential to prevent hamstringing your success (or your hamstring for that matter).
I found a copy of Presentation Zen at my university library and took endless pages of notes, but if you have $17 in your book budget you can pick up your own copy here. Garr can tell you better than I can how to design your presentation, how to make good-looking and accurate figures, and how to capture your audience with your simple yet captivating slides. It’s up to you to tell the story and let your voice fill in the gaps that your data can’t easily say on its own, but Garr’s tips and tricks will set you up for success in terms of design and thinking about the presentation itself before you start putting your story into slide form.
Step 0. Make a story board
Before you even think about opening Powerpoint, sketch out your main points, an idea of the content you’ll present, and an order for your story. This is a trick adopted from Presentation Zen but I’ve made it as a separate pre-step because it makes the rest of the talk flow much more nicely. It’s best to start with an open brainstorming session about your topic and your project before you lay it out slide by slide. When you have your big picture ideas in place, then you can focus in on how you’ll actually make the presentation using the story board approach.
Set up your story board using an unconstrained media with whatever suits your style the most: blank paper and pen, whiteboard, sticky notes, tablet and stylus, restaurant tablecloth, anything that lets you get a wider perspective of your story and lets you move ideas around as need be. I like printing off a set of blank Powerpoint slides in the 3-slide format and writing on them directly because you can make notes to yourself next to each idea while still giving yourself space to draw out what can go on each slide. The goal of this step is to decide what you want to share, what order your findings should go in, and what the transitions between slides and ideas will be.
You story board should help you lay out your slides in order to follow a single line of reasoning, which you’ll then bring to life during your actual presentation. While you are rearranging content in order to get your story across in the best way, having the story board enables you to have a wider vision of when content and ideas are introduced during your presentation. When you only see one slide at a time (as with the default Powerpoint slide mode), it’s easy to lose track of what you’ve already said or what message you want to convey 10 slides from where you are now. Drawing out your talk will also help you identify the transition points that you'll need to make clear as you shift from concept to concept so you don’t lose your audience in the transitions between ideas.
While creating your storyboard, you should keep your audience in mind and always think of ways to keep them interested in what you’re showing. This means they need to understand what you’re presenting while at the same time becoming interested in learning something new about what your project brings to the field. A lesson passed to me by husband (via one of his grad school professors) of how to do this effectively is to break your talk into three equal parts: 1) Things that are easy to understand by a broad audience, 2) Things only people in your field will understand, and 3) Things only you will understand (also known as what you want to teach to the audience). These should be set up as equal thirds regardless of how long your talk is. For example, if you’re giving a 15 minute conference presentation, 5 minutes is easy stuff, 5 minutes is field-specific, and 5 minutes is your project.
First 1/3: Set the stage with background information and broad appeal.
Your goal here is to capture everyone’s attention by getting your audience all on the same page of understanding. Don’t assume that anyone has read a single paper in your area or knows what you’re talking about when you mention PCA or RPM or TGIF. Think of a conference you’ve been to where even though the overall field is the same (wildlife ecology, cancer biology, astronomy, etc), everyone at the meeting has a different specialty (arctic ecology, tumor suppressor proteins, quasars). You want to keep this diverse set of people interested at the same time, which means you have to talk about your work in a way that a diverse group can follow it. This will likely take some trial and error, but one easy way to figure out if you’re doing this the right way is to give this part of your talk to someone completely outside your field. If they can follow what you're trying to say, so can anyone else that goes to your conference presentation.
Second 1/3: Cover in-depth details, concepts, and relevant literature that people in your field will understand and that those outside your field may not.
People from your specific field of work will be there, probably sitting in the front row, who will be curious as to what you’ll say about their work. You know what they know already, so this is your chance to show them what you know and how your problem is going to solve an issue within the field. Because of their presence in the audience, this is also a good time not to directly trash someone’s previous work: if you found something convincing that underpins a previous study, let your results speak for themselves, and avoid an overly aggressive question or two after the talk is done. At the same time that you’re thinking about the experts, remember to keep the interested outsider on the same page as everyone else. Be careful not to overuse acronyms or jargon from your field when you make it to this section of your talk and instead use language that everyone in the room can follow.
Final 1/3: Present your novel contribution (i.e. the reason you are giving the talk).
Once you’ve got both the experts and non-experts on the same page in terms of the finer details and scientific context that leads up to your project, you can finish the talk by telling them all something new. In this part of the talk, you are the expert in the room and this is your opportunity to teach the audience something new and explain to them why it’s important. The best part of this section is that it’s the part that you know the most about. Let your ideas, graphs, and data shine through and conclude with a discussion on the impacts of your work in a way that everyone can follow and understand.
While following this strict set-up may sound tedious, it’s the most effective way to keep people interested in what you’re presenting. Don’t think that since everyone at your talk is an expert that you can just jump straight into a more in-depth background to save time, or that the in-depth background is boring and redundant and just go straight to your results from the introduction. Doing so will make it easier to lose members of your audience and will jumble your story around so much that it will be hard to follow or understand why it’s important. Structuring your talk in these three sections gives you an easy template to work with and will make the next five steps slightly easier*.
Luckily for you (and me), that should be enough work for you until next week when you get the actual Five Easy* Steps for a Perfect** Presentation. Until next week, happy story boarding!