When tasked with designing a presentation for an upcoming speaking engagement, it can feel like a monumental task. Often many of us are tempted to rehash an old presentation into the new format needed and not worry too much about the content. This is a problematic way of thinking, since you are giving up the opportunity to improve on your previous work. For example, no self respecting scientist would rehash a old publication showing nearly the same work and call it an original paper, so why do speaking engagements get this treatment. Public presentations have a powerful impact on the audience and can make or break a person’s reputation. Increasingly in the digital age, public talks are recorded and uploaded to the internet and make a lasting impression with the audience that can be re-watched for years to come.
So why are we so quick to accept the mediocre standard of, “I’ll just use what I did from last year”? There is really no excuse for reusing old content, when your success depends on what content is being presented and how it you present it. I’m not only referring to visual aids like slide shows. The problem is that we get into the habit of using the same script for our introduction, our methods and so on. Once you become complacent with your material you stop innovating and less of your audience will be receptive to your message. As a communicator you are constantly being judged on how you present and what supporting material you use. Scientists will often allot months of time to perfect a paper. They ask the coauthors to comment and revise, use the help of independent reviewers to improve the publication, and edit according to the advice of the editor well before anything is made public. Conversely presentations are often only given a week or less of editing time, and maybe one practice run in front of an audience for constructive criticism. Giving a presentation should require as much effort as a publication, since it can actually reflect more on you than your most recent paper.
It is important to allow time and effort for the revision and editing of your work. It may take you a long time of careful refinement to finally find an effective way to communicate your topic. The key is to ask for feedback from others and not necessarily in a formal setting. Practice public speaking by sitting down with people and speaking off the top of your head and while you explain your work. Afterwards ask them if they understood all of the information and what was unclear, take notes on what can be improved. You can do this many times with different people and see how they understand the topic, after a while you will have a good spectrum of results on how to present to people with different backgrounds. Revise and improve on what language to use, think about how to address common questions people have, and so on. Eventually this type of practice will help fill gaps and reduce overall confusion when you communicate.
Who are you?
So how do you craft a presentation to fit your style? First there are several things you must consider. Every person has their strengths and weaknesses, for the most part weaknesses can be improved but you want to make good use of your strengths as well. For example, I remember hearing a student talk and his voice was powerful and dramatic. The topic was on medical research and and his booming voice made for strong emotional moments, however he did not win best talk of the meeting. This is because the visual aids were lacking, and the continuity of the story was somewhat difficult to follow. The point is figure out whatever you are good at and do it, but don’t forget to fill the gaps where you fall short as well. If you are comfortable in front of audiences let your charisma come through but be sure to use professional language as well. If you are nervous then work on relieving your tension and anxiety through practice and add your analytical skills to the talk. The key is to be well rounded enough so that the true personality and voice can shine through.
When you are making a new presentation your need to consider you audience before editing for content. Understanding who you are speaking to should be an important factor in deciding how to design your presentation. Consider the type of audience (e.g. students, public, colleagues) and general knowledge level. The level of knowledge and information you include needs to be balanced by the audience you expect to have. Significant time will mostly be spent in the introduction if the audience is new to the material, but if they are all familiar you can pack in more information in the results. Be ready to think on your feet as well, if you planned for the general public and many experienced scientists show up, then you need to be prepared to explain your data thoroughly without any additional visual aids. This can be achieved by being well versed in the topic before you even begin to construct a presentation. Thinking ahead about the audience can alleviate a lot stress on the day you present.
When you are giving a talk the environment is an important thing to consider. Think not only of the type of presentation you will give (e.g. seminar, workshop, etc) but also the room and AV equipment that you will be using. In a large room with a small screen small text and figures will not be easy to read, however in a small classroom setting the same figure with small text could be legible. Will the room be dark or light? Will you be speaking in the morning or evening? Will you be the first speaker or the keynote? All of these factors will affect the attention level of your audience, and your presentation needs to be adjusted accordingly.
Imagine that you are the fourth speaker at a professional meeting about aquatic invertebrates. Right away you already know that the audience is well versed in the topic and how many people might show up to the talk. Using this information on the context of your talk can help refine your presentation. All too often a student will get up to present at a national meeting spending the first few minutes giving an identical introduction to the speaker before. In this example you can leave out a lot of background because the session is designed to attract those who already know a lot about the subject. Furthermore, you are right in the middle of the session so the audience will already be thinking about the subject more deeply than in the first talk. If your research is new and controversial, better make sure there is time for questions at the end. If it is informative make sure to include resources where the audience can learn more. As a last note, if you are the final speaker in a session consider the fatigue of the audience and make sure to tailor your presentation so that it is not too complicated or long.
Following these simple ideas while constructing your presentation will set you up for success the next time you speak in public.