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Lean, scientific, effective presentations

In the sixties, Marshall McLuhan already said that “the medium through which information is transmitted strongly influences how the information will be received by its audience.”. Even today some people have not understood that the “medium is the message”. This shockingly came to my mind, when I saw some oral student presentations last week at HGO, where I currently pursue my Ph.D. Now, this article is especially for those students lacking knowledge on how to effectively present themselves and the message they want to bring across, both ultimately being the same thing.

A few constraints 

While some people are born to present, others get the total stage fright, when they are in front of a crowd. But in a scientific education – no matter what type you are – it is always important to bring your point across – be it a research paper, your thesis or just plainly some new idea. This a thing that frustrates many students: While they have worked quite hard on their assignments (in our case on their board and video games), most of them fail to make it visible to their lecturer or tutor. This has to do with some tough constraints used in most quality education:

  • Time. You usually have approximately 20 minutes for class presentations. In Germany, you have to present the work of your Master’s thesis in exactly 20 minutes. Quite a tough challenge for something that you have worked on for more than 5 months.
  • Audience. Usually, the people sitting in front of you know less about the your subject, now can you make your work clear for them without being too detailed?
  • Setting. Naturally you have to present at a place or on a computer that you do not know to well. How can you make sure everything works there? This is especially true, if your presentation includes videos, games or other software.

Communication is important

While most often found in education these constraints may also be equally valid to any other occasion where you give a presentation. And believe me, University is definitely not the last place, where you will need to present yourself and your ideas. But this is the only place where it does not matter to much if you make mistakes, so take this as your big opportunity to learn how to make good presentations.

Communicating effectively is key factor for personal success and success in business. And talking to a person is only one way of communication, as the topic suggests, your body language, your personality and appearance as well as your material and preparation are all part of the message that you give to your audience.

Communication is subconscious 

Connecting your desired information with emotional connotations will give them a subconscious anchor in your viewers’ minds. The subconscious messages your are sending all the time is something you need to be aware of during your presentation.

Most decisions are made on an emotional basis. Thus, if you want to convince your audience to do something, the impression that you make is important. And this impression is always subjective. You cannot change that fact, but you can improve on it once you are aware of it.

Communication is difficult

Having said that the impression you make is of high importance, we should look at some common problems that occur during student presentations (almost all of them were present during the student presentations I watched last week). What went wrong?

  • Poor or no use of visual media. All students were told to give their presentations with OOo Impress or Power Point, but clearly only 5% seemed to remember that. And if they were using slides, most completely forgot to insert images/video to exemplify their points.
  • No or completely unclear structure. While it was clear that all students wanted to say how their games function and what hypothesis this lead to, almost none of them seemed to have a clear structure to bring this across. I felt lost after a few seconds.
  • Bad timing. Most of the presentations were either way too short or way too long, when the students either did not want to say too much about their project (SAD! – because they should be proud of their work) or they lost themselves into details that were not really necessary to know (ever heard of the KISS principle?).
  • Unpractised appearance. To present something, it is of utmost importance not only to know what points you will talk about, but also to rehearse your presentation, which will lead us to the following tips

You cannot not communicate

As said before, a lot of subconscious information is perceived while you give your oral presentation. The most revealing is body language. Now according to one of the lectures I had about presentations, body language consists mainly of four parts:

  • Position. You should always face the audience and at best try to make eye contact with everybody in there every once in a while. It is also not good to hide behind furniture or to stand to far away from the people. Another bad habit some people have is to obscure their presentation so that others cannot read the slides or watch the visual media.
  • Movement. While too much walking around and fiddling with objects (like a pen) can be quite distractive for the viewers, it is important to elucidate your ideas with gestures and also facial expressions. Do not be too stiff.
  • Posture. A stable but relaxed stand is good to give yourself and your audience confidence in you. You should also not hide your hands in your pockets.
  • Eyes. With your eyes you contact your audience directly and they will give you straight attention when you look at them. You should also try not to look on the floor and ceiling too often, because this way, your audience will also lose focus from your talk.

A word about speaking

While you speak to people everyday, it is a bit different when you are presenting. It is all about your voice and how you modulate it. Most people tend to speak a bit too silent and also too fast when they present. In my experience it is often due to inexperience of the presenter. So, again the counter measure to this is a thorough rehearsal. Make a pause, when you want a strong point to sink in. You should always think about the modulation, clarity and phrasing of your speech. If you are non-English speaking, you might also want to think about the language. While in your home country is most often ok to speak in your mother tongue (without any hindering accent), however at a University with international students, you should consider having the talk or at least your slides in English.

Once you have good slides, do not be mistaken to just read them to your viewers, this will immediately bore everybody and also agitate some people. If you have strong problems memorizing your points, index cards can help, but I personally prefer to rehearse long enough to speak freely. Abbreviations and inappropriate language are also common factors that will have the same effect on your audience, while personal anecdotes can help to lighten up your talk a little bit (however, do not overuse!). Do not be too wordy when you speak and concentrate on the subject and meaning of each slide that you want to bring across. Try to use tricolons (the magic three) for important points. People will remember those!

Structure your slides

Before we talk about the layout of your slides, we will now talk a bit about structure: The semantic structure of your presentation needs to eminent at all times. Whenever you make a new slide think about how it undermines the main thread. Never lose that focus during your presentation. Also note that like classical drama, a good presentation has three parts (remember the rule of three?).

  • Introduction. The most important part of your talk is introducing yourself and your topic (it cannot hurt to give your talk a fancy name to grab attention and thank the people for coming as well). Here you need to motivate your audience to listen to you. Attention is something people are only willing to give away at a certain price, so you need to work on making a perfect entrée. The rest will be peanuts then. The better you plan this, the more it also helps to overcome your initial nerviness. You should also include an outline of your talk so that everyone knows, what you will be talking about (and how long if this is not a given time frame). Whether or not questions are allowed during the talk may depending on the circumstances, but should nevertheless quickly be addressed here as well.
  • Main Body. Once you have the attention of your audience, it is time to tell them what you have been working on. Communicate all the information you want and with all the means from above here. The level of detail you go into needs to fit your audience. Make it clear, when you transition from one topic to another during your talk, so people can keep track of where you are in your presentation. Be also aware the most of the information you will present here will be forgotten after your talk (see Pareto principle).
  • Conclusion/Ending. Whatever you think your most important three points are, you need to summarize them short and precisely in the end. Next step is to derive the most important message of your talk and formulate it clearly as a take-home message for your audience. Ask yourself what value your talk has added to the life of your audience and how you can make them aware of that. Once everybody feels he/she has gained something from you, you have succeeded. The only thing left for you is to thank everybody for giving you their attention and to leave a positive impression.

For the content of your slides you should always remember the common principle of “when in doubt, leave it out”. Concentrate on the key points you want to make and refine your slides over and over. Guy Kawasaki has certainly got a point in his 10 20 30 rule, where he argues that 10 slides are enough for 20 minutes. So roughly calculate 2 minutes for each slide you make and adjust that according to your given time frame. Visualize whenever you think it is appropriate.

Slide design

We have been through a lot in this article and we will finish with some last words on slide design. Now, a thing I most dislike about slide design is the wrong choice of color. Be aware that this even happens to University professors a lot. If it was up to me, I would like to NEVER see green/blue on red, red on black, purple on blue, yellow on white text again, but that would just be too lovely…

Now, when you design the color scheme for your slide, be aware of effective contrast between background and text color. Also keep in mind the people with color viewing deficiencies. If you hand out your slides to students, also make a print version of them available that uses black text on white background, otherwise printing will become hell for them and it is a waste of toner/ink. This is sadly often forgotten by many professors, because it means a bit of extra work for the slide design. For the lazy ones among us, it might be best to stick with classic light background, dark foreground schemes (although the opposite would be optimal for readability/projection in large rooms).

I have already said something about the magic number 3, now 7 is also a bit magic: In the ideal case, you should not use more than seven items on a slide, not more than seven lines per slide, not more than seven words per line. Try not to write sentences and sum up everything to keywords and phrases. Always ask yourself what the key point of the slide is. If in doubt, leave it out. Deja vue.

Size and the shape of your font affect the readability of your slides. Therefore you should use rather big font sizes (Power Point generally already gives you good presets). Do not use a font smaller than 24pt. Choose a font with constant line width (e.g. Arial, Frutiger) and keep away from those fonts with serifs (e.g. Times New Roman). While serific fonts (e.g. Times, Garamond) look great on printed paper, it is a completely different show on your slides. Always stick to sans-serif fonts here, if you want to be any serious. Do not overuse tables and try to stick to bullet points where possible.

Now, that’s about all from me for now. My fingers hurt and I should finish this article to let you go off to making your presentations. 

While this guide is far from being most comprehensive, I strongly hope it serves as a good starting point for you to prepare your next presentation in class. Once you have presented a few times in public, you will become very used to it and preparation will go faster and more fluently. Maybe you will even enjoy presentations one day. Whatever it is, please share your valuable experiences with me in your comments. I am looking most forward to it. Thank you for your attention! Smile

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