Presentation Tips

"Every great scientist is part B.F. Skinner, part B.T. Barnum."

Why tips?
As a university student I've sat through more than my fair share of presentations. I like to think I've seen it all; the good, the bad and the ugly. And the ugly, can be really ugly. Quite frankly, there's no reason to give a bad presentation, unless of course you haven't done the work to prepare for it. In that case, this page won't save you. But, I'd like to think that if you have done your homework, but are a little nervous in front of an audience this page will help you.

Know your audience
One of the most important aspects of an effective presentation is how well you target your audience. If you over estimate their knowledge, your talk will be over their heads and they will all fall asleep. If you under estimate their knowledge, you will bore them until they fall asleep. The trick is keeping everyone awake.

To help yourself target you audience, visualize who they are going to be. I'm a Computer Science student, so it's easy for me to think in terms of that. If I'm presenting something to non-CS students/viewers, I'll need to keep things high level. They won't understand technical details, and it won't matter to them. What they'll understand is high-level concepts.

If I'm speaking to a mixed group of CS people, then I know that I can assume some base knowledge in computer science, and things can be a little more technical. Don't teach your audience things they already know. This is the most powerful sleeping pill. Even though they're all in CS doesn't mean they need or want to know all the nitty gritty details of what I am presenting. Tell them what they need to know.

Lastly, if I am presenting to a group of people involved in my field of computer science, I can delve into the technical nuts and bolts of what is being presented, but ONLY IF IT IS IMPORTANT. Don't tell they audience useless information. They can sense it. Tell them the stuff they need to know to understand the concepts you are introducing.

Don't read from the slides
Remember, you did your homework! You know what's on the slides, you don't need to read from them. Slide layout is very important. There should be enough information on the slides that the readers aren't lost, but not so much that they don't want to listen to you. Point form notes is essential. If you can't elaborate further on a point you have written, then one of two things has happened:
1. The point is too long.
2. The point is not important.
The solution is to remove that bullet from your slide and possibly move it to your notes sheet (but don't read from that either). No one will believe you know what you're talking about if you're reading from something word for word.

"You speak english, the slides speak math. You make a good team." - Mike Burrell

Slides should be used to pace yourself. It's okay to look at them, this will keep your presentation focused, but don't stare. Casually glance over to see what the next point you wanted to talk about was. If you know your material well, your slides will be the perfect clue to jog your memory.

A note about diagrams: Make sure your diagram fits nicely on the slide. If the font is too small, people won't understand what you're showing them. (Remember, what looks good on your computer screen might not look good on a projector.) If you can't fit the diagram on a single slide without making the text look microscopic, then your diagram is trying to convey too much information. Find a simpler way to get your ideas across.

Starting on time and ending on time
Nothing gets a presentation off to a worse start than beginning late (except maybe not showing up at all). Show up with plenty of time to set up, and have a back-up plan. Get in there at least 10 minutes before the scheduled start, and make sure you have everything you need. Be ready to start on time. If someone is presenting something else before you, get in there before them and make sure your presentation will be ready to roll as soon as they are done.

Ending on time is essential. If you're giving a 30 minute presentation, end in 30 minutes or a bit less. There's a reason for the time limit. If you can't communicate what you've been asked to present in the given amount of time, then you're blabbering on. Quantity does not make up for quality. No really, it doesn't...stop thinking that. If you audience is expecting a 30 minute presentation, you will lose their interest exactly 31 minutes into your talk.

Final Thoughts
Use powerpoint or other presentation software (make sure it works in the place you are presenting). Use humor where appropriate. A subtle joke here and there keeps your audience alive, they're human too and will appreciate it. Choose your examples wisely. Examples are a great way to convey your idea, but they should be simple so they avoid confusion, and precise so they highlight a core concept. Human physiology makes it impossible to come up with an effective example on the spot. Plan it ahead of time. If in doubt, leave it out. If you're not sure if something should be in your presentation or not, leave it off, or leave it until the end. You can always stretch it out of time passes too quickly. Practice practice practice. Run through your presentation at least once speaking aloud. Talking "in your head" is not the can do that a lot faster and you don't stumble in your head.

Winging it
Don't even try.

By Dan Santoni
April 7, 2005