How to make a good presentation

It always amazes me, in a negative way, unfortunately, how only a small number of people know how to make and deliver a good presentation. For us scientists, that’s usually the Achilles’ heel. “Crazy scientists” get so caught up in their science that when they present it in a scientific meeting, or to general public, presentation often looks confusing, boring or sometimes even scary. But there are some general rules that, when applied, can do magic with your presentation. You can apply these rules to a scientific presentation, to a business presentation, to any kind of presentation where you need to pitch an idea to a small or large audience. There are people whose job IS to teach you how to make a good presentation. To give you a disclaimer right away – I’m not one of those people. I’m just someone who has learned these things in the process. But if you try this out, I know you will find it useful. So without further ado I give you


1. Know Thy Audience

This seems so simple but it is THE most crucial point which makes the world of difference. Even before you commit to give a presentation to a group of people you need to know their demographics. Is your audience young? Are they old? Well situated? Well educated? Sometimes you may also want to know what is their nationality, their race, religious background. Of course, you don’t need to know all this every time. You decide what a crucial demographics is based on what your presentation is about. For instance, when I give a public scientific lecture, if I give it in high school I try to be more hip, use more slang, refer to things, music they are interested in. On the other hand when I give the same public lecture in a e.g. local city-funded cultural center which mostly senior, well educated people attend, I try to use more subtle language, make more subtle jokes, and I don’t try as much to make it more fun as I have to do with teenagers. So, you decide what information about demographics of the audience is important to you, and adjust your presentation accordingly. Sometimes, especially when you are giving the same presentation multiple times (for instance, when giving the same lecture each year to different group of students, or when trying to pitch your idea to different potential sponsors), it’s tempting and easier to give exactly the same presentation each time. But again, even if it’s almost the same type of the audience, people always like to see a personalized presentation – one made just for them. For instance, when I give a lecture about galaxies (I’m an astrophysicist by the way), and show how our galaxy, the Milky Way, looks like, I always show the location of the Earth in there, but instead of writing just “The Earth” I write the appropriate name of the city, or the institution where I’m giving this lecture. And you’d be amazed how a simple thing like that makes a difference.

2. Be yourself

I know this point may look like it’s contradicting point No.1, but it’s not. How ever you change your presentation to accommodate the audience, whatever you do, you need to, eventually, be yourself. That’s what makes people trust you. Last thing you want when you give a presentation is that the audience does not believe in what you are telling them. And when does the audience distrust you? When they smell a bad acting. Trying too much to be something you are not, leads to bad acting (unless you are Robert de Niro), and bad acting in presenting, where you are trying to pitch an idea, to sell something, leads to a failure. Little things that will help you stay away from putting unintentional but a bad act and staying yourself are: be comfortable in what you are saying and wearing, and believe in what you are saying (unless you are a lawyer or a politician ;).

3. Be the audience

First step to actually making a good presentation is putting yourself in audiences’ shoes. Make a presentation that you, if you were the audience, would find interesting, engaging, smooth, fun, and whatever else you are trying to achieve with it. Avoid making a presentation that would put even you to sleep. And remember, if you are not having fun writing it, making it, practicing it and delivering it, then your presentation probably needs a bit of rewriting.

4. Practice makes perfect

Practice, practice, practice. Simple. An absolute “don’t” is saying out loud your presentation for the first time in front of the target audience. Every time I finish writing a presentation I am happy with how it looks on paper/Power Point, but when I try to go over it out loud, I always run into a few bumps, and end up rewriting it a bit to make it more smooth and clear. But you don’t want to overdo it. There is such thing as too much practice. It’s that point where identical sentences come out of your mouth every time you practice your presentation. You don’t want to learn it by heart because then it starts sounding fake, like bad acting. The only thing that is OK to know by heart is maybe a few intro sentences at the beginning of the presentation, especially if you suffer from anxiety before giving a presentation – knowing few intro sentences by hear will help you feel more comfortable and help you relax and ease you into the rest of your presentation.

5. Setup – confrontation – resolution

At every moment during your presentation you want your audience to know where they are, why they are there, and where they are going. This is what a smooth presentation is. Just like a nicely written book, it has a setup, a confrontation, or a plot, and a resolution. You don’t want to make it a David Lynch movie where you end up being totally confused in both space and time. Last thing you want to do is confuse your audience. First you want to tell them is why they are there. Give them a reason why the topic you talk about is important. Then you need to lay out a plan of action and tell them what the goal is and maybe outline how you plan to get there (unless you need an element of surprise to make it more effective). Next you need to set up some general rules, tell them all important things that they will need to know in order to understand your presentation, and only then you lead your audience through the plot, through your method, your procedure, through the vital and most difficult part of your presentation. After that, the plot needs to reach a resolution, the conclusion, results, the punch line of your presentation. And make sure that, when delivering the punch line, the main result of your talk, you make a big deal out of it, because after all, that’s why both you and the audience are there. Finally, you want your presentation to end smoothly, and not with a cliffhanger like in a season finale of some TV show – that annoys the audience.

6. Keywords

Be sure to know what the keywords of your presentation are. In every presentation many words are spoken, many Power Point slides are shown, many demonstrations are done, and that is just too much information. If you give a good presentation, most of people from the audience will be able to recount your presentation a day after. A week after most of them will only remember bits and pieces but will remember what the point of it was. A year after, well … if they can reproduce a 3-word summary of your presentation then you gave a successful presentation. And those 3 words those are your keywords – something that people will take home with them and that will stick in their mind. So break your presentation apart into keywords. The easiest way to do that is to try to summarize your presentation into a few (3, or so) words. Once you know your keywords, make sure that you repeat them as much as you can (but not sounding too weird) during your presentation, because repetition makes people remember. Also, you want to make a big deal out of it each time you say any of the keywords.

7. Not too much

There is such thing as too much information. I know that, especially when you are presenting your own work, you want to tell the audience everything, fill them in with all the details of your work, project, steps you took in the process, but they do not really need all that. They do not need to hear everything about the process of you work (unless that’s what the presentation is about). They only basically need to understand the presentation and get the punch line. All other things which are not essential for your talk but that your want to tell your audience, have as a backup (slides), in case someone asks about it. So try not to clutter your talk with information that people can live without. If you are giving a Power Point presentation or something of that sort, don’t have too much slides. A good guiding rule is 1 slide per minute. Don’t have too much text on your slides, cause that would make it difficult for your audience to read your slides and listen to you at the same time. And if you are a scientist, please, please, try not to use too much equations – show only those that are really, really essential.

8. WHAT is the center, not how

Sometimes, with all the nice things that e.g. Power Point can do, it can happen that WHAT gets hijacked by HOW during your presentation. What I mean by that is that if you use too much Power Point animations, fancy slide transitions, titles and words falling animations, this can drive all of the attention of your audience away from what you are saying to how you are presenting it. For instance, using a nice but dark image in the background of the text on your slides is also a bad idea since the text is then harder to read, and you never want the design of your presentation to get in the way of the topic. So you don’t want to overdo it with trying to make your presentation look all nice, fancy and shiny. After all, WHAT you are saying IS the CENTER of your presentation, and not the presentation design itself.

9. Eye contact

Again, very simple but makes a world of difference. Establishing a regular eye contact with your audience makes you look friendlier, believable and trustworthy, which is essential for a successful presentation. Unless you give them “Here’s Johnny”, Jack Nicholson look, of course.

10. Stick to the time

Finally, nothing annoys people more than a presenter that goes over the time limit. You can deliver a brilliant presentation but if it drags out for too long, eventually some people will be annoyed, and you don’t want that to be their last impression. So you want to respect audiences’ time.

And there you have it. My 10 presenting commandments. It all probably looks so intuitive and obvious but sticking with it is a different story. Still, I’m hoping that you will find it useful and at least try it out. Trust me, it will make a world of difference

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