Giving a Presentation 101

I’ve given a few professional, research-oriented talks in the past couple years while in attendance at international conferences. Not only this, my department hosts speakers on a weekly basis, so analyzing how people give presentations, their presentation style, and the manner by which they conduct themselves with the audience is somewhat of interest to me. I came to the conclusion that I’d like to contemplate the subject of presentations in this post because I just gave a talk to my entire department (nerve-racking) and it was really well received, which pleases me.

I was one of three presenters and each of us had our own way of presenting which was a great way to showcase all of our unique skills to the department and students much younger than us. My presentation was similar to that of ones I have given before, in which the audience cannot see the speaker, but only the slide show. So I stood primarily behind the lectern, used the mouse heavily, and spoke to the audience but kept behind the lectern for the entire talk. Alternatively, my female colleague stood in front of the lectern and used a pointer to specifically point to each of the items she was speaking about. My male colleague stood behind the lectern and also used a laser pointer to specifically reference each part of his presentation. Both of my colleagues had some videos that helped in the explanation of their scientific theories, while used animations and subtle transitions throughout my presentation.

Our speaking styles were also very different from eachother’s, and I think this primarily stems from our different personalities. I spoke to the audience as if they were friends and I was trying to convey what we were doing in our research group that was at a level understood by all. Alternatively, my female colleague used more scientific-heavy vocabulary in her discussion. My male colleague was much more quiet and had exactly what he wanted to say memorized prior to his talk, so his presentation came off a bit stiff, and in some cases he forgot what he was going to say which threw him off balance. I would not recommend memorizing exactly what you are going to say for a presentation. Most people, in the instance of high stress, suffer from “brain farts” in which they forget everything they are supposed to say. As an alternative to this, if one memorizes the major thematic statements that one wants to emphasize per slide you won’t forget, just present them in alternative ways.

Now that’s the different perspectives on giving presentations; what about being an active audience member? I will preface this discussion with the inclusion that some departments are different from others in that chemistry usually allows for a speaker to give his/her presentation followed by a round of question and answers, whereas business interrupts the speaker whenever an audience member feels the urge to question something. In my opinion, I enjoy listening to the story that the speaker weaves and then coming to my own conclusions given all of the information and data and taking that and asking questions. During the presentations of me and my colleagues, I was allowed to finish my talk and one student and a faculty member asked individual questions. Alternatively, my female colleague was interrupted by a faculty member with a question. It threw the speaker’s flow off, and her answer was a bit “duh!” if you get my drift, mainly because the question was a bit assumed. Anyway, I find taking notes helps think about the problems being posed throughout the talk and coming up with your own answers is helpful as well.

Last concept I want to touch on is slides and what’s the easiest way to make your slides visually appealing and ¬†well-understood. I like simple slide layouts, a white background with a bold header is perfect, in my opinion. On the flip slide I LOVE animations. Personally, they allow for the speaker to have some help in discussing their topics and focusing their talk. Instead of one slide with a million things going on, the ability to have figures show up as your talk about them really helps in training the audience’s eyes as well as focusing the speaker’s discussion points. Even if you do have animations however, a complex slide makes it fairly challenging for both the audience to grasp the key concepts of the talk and to tell a story. A presentation is a glorified story, and the speaker is the story-teller. So thinking about a presentation, the figures, and how to convey big picture concepts in a manner relating to a story really aids in a successful presentation.

This post was a bit longer than I anticipated, but I had quite a few thoughts to talk about so I hope you take what I say as one person’s advice and use some of it or none of it. The ideas work for me, but everyone’s unique and I will be the first to accept it, so hope you enjoyed and hope this was a thought provoking discussion!