In this Chapter
- Strategies for developing professional oral presentations and designing clear, functional slides
- Discussion of what makes presentations challenging and practical advice for becoming a more engaging and effective presenter
- Tips for extending the concepts of high quality presentations to creating videos and posters
Presentations are one of the most visible forms of professional or technical communication you will have to do in your career. Because of that and the nature of being put “on the spot,” presentations are often high pressure situations that make many people anxious. As with the other forms of communication described in this guide, the ability to present well is a skill that can be practiced and honed.
When we think of presentations, we typically imagine standing in front of a room (or auditorium) full of people, delivering information verbally with slides projected on a screen. Variations of that scene are common. Keep in mind, though, that the skills that make you a strong presenter in that setting are incredibly valuable in many other situations, and they are worth studying and practicing.
Effective presentation skills are the ability to use your voice confidently to communicate in “live” situations—delivering information verbally and “physically,” being able to engage your audience, and thinking on your feet. It also translates to things like videos, which are a more and more common form of communication in professional spheres. You will have a number of opportunities during your academic career to practice your presentation skills, and it is worth it to put effort into developing these skills. They will serve you well in myriad situations beyond traditional presentations, such as interviews, meetings, networking, and public relations.
This chapter describes best practices and tips for becoming an effective presenter in the traditional sense, and also describes how best practices for presentation skills and visuals apply to creating videos and posters.
Similar to any other piece of writing or communication, to design a successful presentation, you must follow a thoughtful writing process (see Engineering Your Writing Process) that includes planning, drafting, and getting feedback on the presentation content, visuals, and delivery (more on that in the following section).Following is a simple and comprehensive way to approach “writing” a presentation:
Step 1: Identify and state the purpose of the presentation. Find focus by being able to clearly and simply articulate the goal of the presentation—what are you trying to achieve? This is helpful for you and your audience—you will use it in your introduction and conclusion, and it will help you draft the rest of the presentation content.
Step 2: Outline major sections. Next, break the presentation content into sections. Visualizing sections will also help you assess organization and consider transitions from one idea to the next. Plan for an introduction, main content sections that help you achieve the purpose of the presentation, and a conclusion.
Step 3: Draft content. Once you have an outline, it’s time to fill in the details and plan what you are actually going to say. Include an introduction that gives you a chance to greet the audience, state the purpose of the presentation, and provide a brief overview of the rest of the presentation (e.g. “First, we will describe the results of our study, then we’ll outline our recommendations and take your questions”). Help your audience follow the main content of the presentation by telling them as you move from one section of your outline to the next—use the structure you created to keep yourself and your audience on track.
End with a summary, restating the main ideas (purpose) from the presentation and concluding the presentation smoothly (typically thanking your audience and offering to answering any questions from your audience). Ending a presentation can be tricky, but it’s important because it will make a lasting impression with your audience—don’t neglect to plan out the conclusion carefully.
Step 4: Write presentation notes. For a more effective presentation style, write key ideas, data, and information as lists and notes (not a complete, word-for-word script). This allows you to ensure you are including all the vital information without getting stuck reading a script. Your presentation notes should allow you to look down, quickly reference important information or reminders, and then look back up at your audience.
Step 5: Design supporting visuals. Now it’s time to consider what types of visuals will best help your audience understand the information in your presentation. Typically, presentations include a title slide, an overview or advance organizer, visual support for each major content section, and a conclusion slide. Use the visuals to reinforce the organization of your presentation and help your audience see the information in new ways.
Don’t just put your notes on the slides or use visuals that will be overwhelming or distracting—your audience doesn’t need to read everything you’re saying, they need help focusing on and really understanding the most important information. See Designing Effective Visuals.
At each step of the way, assess audience and purpose and let them affect the tone and style of your presentation. What does your audience already know? What do you want them to remember or do with the information? Use the introduction and conclusion in particular to make that clear.
For in-class presentations, look at the assignment or ask the instructor to make sure you’re clear on who your audience is supposed to be. As with written assignments, you may be asked to address an imagined audience or design a presentation for a specific situation, not the real people who might be in the room.
In summary, successful presentations
- have a stated purpose and focus;
- are clearly organized, with a beginning, middle, and end;
- guide the audience from one idea to the next, clearly explaining how ideas are connected and building on the previous section; and
- provide multiple ways for the audience to absorb the most important information (aurally and visually).
Since presentation are delivered to the audience “live,” review and revise it as a verbal and visual presentation, not as a piece of writing. As part of the “writing” process, give yourself time to practice delivering your presentation out loud with the visuals. This might mean practicing in front of a mirror or asking someone else to listen to your presentation and give you feedback (or both!). Even if you have a solid plan for the presentation and a strong script, unexpected things will happen when you actually say the words—timing will feel different, you will find transitions that need to be smoothed out, slides will need to be moved.
More importantly, you will be better able to reach your audience if you are able to look up from your notes and really talk to them—this will take practice.
Characteristics of a Strong Presentation Style
When it comes time to practice delivery, think about what has made a presentation and a presenter more or less effective in your past experiences in the audience. What presenters impressed you? Or bored you? What types of presentation visuals keep your attention? Or are more useful?
One of the keys to an effective presentation is to keep your audience focused on what matters—the information—and avoid distracting them or losing their attention with things like overly complicated visuals, monotone delivery, or disinterested body language.
As a presenter, you must also bring your own energy and show the audience that you are interested in the topic—nothing is more boring than a bored presenter, and if your audience is bored, you will not be successful in delivering your message.
Verbal communication should be clear and easy to listen to; non-verbal communication (or body language) should be natural and not distracting to your audience. The chart below outlines qualities of both verbal and non-verbal communication that impact presentation style. Use it as a sort of “rubric” as you assess and practice your own presentation skills.
As you plan and practice a presentation, be aware of time constraints. If you are given a time limit (say, 15 minutes to deliver a presentation in class or 30 minutes for a conference presentation), respect that time limit and plan the right amount of content. As mentioned above, timing must be practiced “live”—without timing yourself, it’s difficult to know how long a presentation will actually take to deliver.
Finally, remember that presentations are “live” and you need to stay alert and flexible to deal with the unexpected:
- Check in with your audience. Ask questions to make sure everything is working (“Can everyone hear me ok?” or “Can you see the screen if I stand here?”) and be willing to adapt to fix any issues.
- Don’t get so locked into a script that you can’t improvise. You might need to respond to a question, take more time to explain a concept if you see that you’re losing your audience, or move through a planned section more quickly for the sake of time. Have a plan and be able to underscore the main purpose and message of your presentation clearly, even if you end up deviating from the plan.
- Expect technical difficulties. Presentation equipment fails all the time—the slide advancer won’t work, your laptop won’t connect to the podium, a video won’t play, etc. Obviously, you should do everything you can to avoid this by checking and planning, but if it does, stay calm, try to fix it, and be willing to adjust your plans. You might need to manually advance slides or speak louder to compensate for a faulty microphone. Also, have multiple ways to access your presentation visuals (e.g., opening Google Slides from another machine or having a flash drive).
Group presentations come with unique challenges. You might be a confident presenter individually, but as a member of a group, you are dealing with different presentation styles and levels of comfort.
Here are some techniques and things to consider to help groups work through the planning and practicing process together:
- Transitions and hand-off points. Be conscious of and plan for smooth transitions between group members as one person takes over the presentation from another. Awkward or abrupt transitions can become distracting for an audience, so help them shift their attention from one speaker to the next. You can acknowledge the person who is speaking next (“I’ll hand it over to Sam who will tell you about the results”) or the person who’s stepping in can acknowledge the previous speaker (“So, I will build on what you just heard and explain our findings in more detail”). Don’t spend too much time on transitions—that can also become distracting. Work to make them smooth and natural.
- Table reads. When the presentation is outlined and written, sit around a table together and talk through the presentation—actually say what you will say during the presentation, but in a more casual way. This will help you check the real timing (keep an eye on the clock) and work through transitions and hand-off points. (Table reads are what actors do with scripts as part of the rehearsal process.)
- Body language. Remember that you are still part of the presentation even when you’re not speaking. Consider non-verbal communication cues—pay attention to your fellow group members, don’t block the visuals, and look alert and interested.
Presentation visuals (typically slides, but could be videos, props, handouts, etc.) help presenters reinforce important information by giving the audience a way to see as well as hear the message. As with all other aspects of presentations, the goal of visuals is to aid your audience’s understanding, not overwhelm or distract them. One of the most common ways visuals get distracting is by using too much text. Plan and select visuals aids carefully—don’t just put your notes on the screen, but use the visuals to reinforce important information and explain difficult concepts.
The slides below outline useful strategies for designing professional, effective presentation slides.
- Write concise text. Minimize the amount of reading you ask your audience to do by using only meaningful keywords, essential data and information, and short phrases. Long blocks of text or full paragraphs are almost never useful.
- Use meaningful titles. The title should reveal the purpose of the slide. Its position on the slide is highly visible—use it to make a claim or assertion, identify the specific focus of the slide, or ask a framing question.
- Use images and graphics. Wherever possible, replace wordy descriptions with visuals. Well chosen images and graphics will add another dimension to the message you are trying to communicate. Make sure images are clear and large enough for your audience to see and understand in the context of the presentation.
- Keep design consistent. The visual style of the slides should be cohesive. Use the same fonts, colors, borders, backgrounds for similar items (e.g., all titles should be styled the same way, all photos should have the same size and color border). This does not mean every slide needs to look identical, but they should be a recognizable set.
- Use appropriate contrast. Pay attention to how easy it is to see elements on the screen. Whatever colors you choose, backgrounds and overlaid text need to be some version of light/dark. Avoid positioning text over a patterned or “busy” background—it is easy for the text to get lost and become unreadable. Know that what looks ok on your computer screen might not be as clear when projected.
- Create a structure for your presentation or video that clearly supports your goal.
- Practice effective verbal and non-verbal communication to become comfortable with your content and timing. If you are presenting as a group, practice together.
- Use visuals that support your message without distracting your audience.