You really can’t escape presentations as a researcher. If you want to submit your work to a conference, then you’ll need to be willing to present (unless you only ever want to do posters. In which case what on earth is wrong with you?). Most job or training interviews will ask you to deliver a presentation. You’ll also quite often give less formal presentations as part of project meetings. And of course lots of researchers also ‘present’ when they’re teaching.
Despite this, how to give a good presentation is something you’re typically left to work out for yourself. It’s similar to ‘how to write well’ which you also just have to try to pick up as you go along. I do wonder if perhaps this explains why lots of academics are quite poor writers – and, yes, poor presenters.
Both presenting and writing are skills, and mastering them takes time. But I do think there’s some general advice that can be helpful when thinking about presentations. This is developed both from my experience of presenting and also my experience of being in the audience, for both good and bad talks.
Before I start though, I think any advice should come with two caveats:
1. Your best presentation style will be the one you’re most comfortable with.
This might mean that some of the advice below just doesn’t work for you. If you feel much more confident with text heavy slides and you struggle to make slides more visual without losing the flow of your argument, then by all means stick to this. What I would suggest is that it’s worth at least experimenting with the tips below. Volunteer for an internal presentation (journal or methods clubs are good for this) and have a go at presenting in a different way to usual.
2. All advice is easier said than done, and I’m sure I don’t follow my own recommendations half the time!
This is perhaps less a caveat than a confession. I really just want to acknowledge that presenting can be hard, that it’s not a skill we get a lot of explicit guidance on as researchers, and that often we’re just doing the best we can in the time available. The tips below are meant to be helpful suggestions, and not a critique of anyone who does things differently.
So, here’s my top tips for academic presentations:
What to say
- There are three things you must do: Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you’ve told them.
- Do not miss any of the above steps!
- The first part should be actually telling them something about the content – “I’m going to talk to you today about why we’re missing the potential of eHealth by ignoring user needs” for example. Not one of those slides that just reads “OVERVIEW: Introduction. Methods. Results. Conclusions.” That’s not actually telling them anything, and it’s dull dull dull.
- The recap is your chance to hammer your point (or what you hope is your point) home. What’s the take home titbit that you want the audience to remember? If they were to go up to their colleagues tomorrow and say “I saw an interesting talk yesterday that showed ….” – what do you want that last part to be?
- Talks, like research papers and essays, are not a detective novel. You don’t have to make the audience wait until the end to find out what the conclusion is. This is actually more true the shorter the presentation is. If you’ve only got 5 minutes, you need to give them the take home message really really soon.
- Only include data and diagrams you will explain. This goes for both qualitative and quantitative. If you are going to present huge tables of analyses, then at least be nice enough to highlight the bits you expect the audience to look at. Sometimes I get the impression people just stick these in to prove they did them. If you’re going to include big chunks of transcripts from interview data, then again make sure you highlight the main points.
- Don’t fill your talk with bits that are anticipated question rebuttals. I get this impression a lot in PhD student talks (though possibly the fault is their supervisors from over use of the “your reviewer will pick that up as a problem!!!” refrain). This is when people go into huge detail about a particular method or finding, or a very defensive justification of a theory or interpretation. If someone wants to critique you on these issues, let them do so in the Q&A (this doesn’t stop you preparing for them. You can still write notes for yourself about how to respond to possible comments, which can be very helpful). Don’t however mess up the flow of your talk or take time away from more interesting parts just because you want to nervously pre-empt someone picking a hole in your methodology.
How to say it
- Within the time limit! Lots of people seem to struggle with this (if the number of people going over time at conferences is anything to go by). I think sticking to time is less about it being a good talk (though probably the two correlate) and more about respecting both your audience and the other speakers whose time you’re cutting into. This is another good reason to use the “state the findings first” approach mentioned above, as then even if you have to skip your final slides you’ve already made your point.
- If you’re really fretting about the idea of skipping to your last slides to quickly summarise the conclusions, just think of it this way: you’re immediately making your Q&A part easier on yourself, as pretty much whatever someone asks you can say “Well actually that was something I was going to cover in slide 7” and then go back to that and discuss it. That’s kind of cheeky though, so don’t tell anyone I told you…
- Visual! The slide should not be your exact talk, in text form, while you stand and read it out. There should be some kind of added value of me coming to hear you speak, or at the very least you shouldn’t bore me to death by just reading word-for-word from a slide that I finished reading in 30 secs but you’ll be reading out loud for 3 minutes. Similarly, put as little text on as possible – just the headlines if you can. It can be hard in academic talks to go easy on the text, but you can try at least to split up the text heavy slides with a few images, and white space on the slides will make what you do include much easier to absorb!
- You don’t automatically have to use PowerPoint, though I’d probably advise caution until academic conferences catch up with the times and offer stable internet connections/ anything other than archaic laptops and projectors. I’ve seen quite a few presentations using Prezi, and my issue in most cases has been Why are you using this instead of PowerPoint? Specifically, Prezi enables non-linear presentations – and I can think of lots of great uses for this, such as showing a changing process, showing how certain things nest inside others, covering different spots before swooping out to the big picture and so on. But quite often people still do a standard linear presentation – they just give the audience mild motion sickness while doing so. Think about the platform you’re using and whether it adds anything. I’ve seen someone do a great presentation just using Stich It for example, which is a programme that stitches together different webpages into a slideshow. This worked because the format matched and aided the talk, which was going through different representations of work online.
- Watch this. It’s brilliant.
Finally, I think the most important thing I can say is “You are a better speaker than you think you are, and no-one thinks you look nervous.” Practically everyone I know has said at some point “Oh that went really badly, I bet everyone could tell I was nervous” and genuinely in not a single case has that been true. Remember you are far more aware of your body and any slight differences in your voice than anyone else in the audience. They are also far more interested in the talk and the slides than wondering if you look a bit peaky. And even if they do, if anything I think it can make them more sympathetic! We’ve all been there after all.
The other fear I know everyone has is that someone in the audience will make their life miserable during the Q&A. Again, most audiences I’ve known are friendly. Most conferences now have half a dozen parallel sessions competing for audience interest, so remember that if they’re turned up to yours it’s because they are genuinely interested in what you have to present. Yes, they might ask hard questions, but because they really want to know the answer – they think the work you do is important and so we should ask important questions about it. There’s also nothing wrong with saying “I hadn’t thought about that.” Maybe follow with “That’s really useful to bring up thank you – could we perhaps a quick chat about it after the talk?” This stops you getting embroiled in a live debate on stage (if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t enjoy that!), will probably flatter the person asking the question, and best of all gives you an opportunity to have a proper discussion with someone who might be able to help you.
I guess it’s possible that there could be a conference where your boss’s worst enemy is there and deliberately attempting to trip you up or humiliate you. If this ever does happen though, be assured that the rest of the audience can spot it a mile off, and insolent people like me are probably already making disparaging comments about them on twitter 😉