Presentation Tips

Presentation tips

Here is a collection of tips I've gleaned from giving and watching scientific presentations over about 15 years, noting what did and didn't work well. Some, but not all of them are specific to scientific conference presentations. These may sound a little prescriptive and, of course, there are no absolutes. But I try to follow all of my own recommendations, and they do work.

Preparing the presentation

  • Stay within time! I've put this under “preparation” rather than “delivery”, because it's better to avoid getting into time pressure in the first place. Be realistic about how much material you can cover - it's probably less than you think. It's far better to finish early than to go over time. The audience will love to have plenty of time for questions.

  • Don't waste time with “outline” slides. The audience expect an introduction, some kind of middle section, followed by a summary and acknowledgements. You don't need to remind them of this, or about what order those sections will be appearing (!) Also, until you introduce the material later in your presentation, the audience might not understand what you're talking about anyway. Tell a story instead, where you take the audience through the material. Colloquium can help with this.

  • Related to the previous point: your presentation can probably be a lot more basic than you expect, especially if it's a teaching presentation. Even for specialised technical talks, most people won't be intimately involved with the material you present.

  • Avoid forward references. The advice to avoid outline slides could be considered a subset of this. It's OK to say “I'll tell you more about X later”, but avoid the strong temptation to try to explain something without first laying the necessary foundations. By giving into this temptation (e.g. because it “felt right at the time”), you can get yourself into a real mess.

  • Keep in mind that the slides are for the audience, not for you. Use the notes feature of your software (or better, the narrative feature of Colloquium) to keep yourself on track.

  • Avoid dark pictures. If you use them, make sure the lighting level in the room is appropriate before starting. The distraction of having people jump up and start adjusting lights and curtains (especially motorised, loud ones) can de-rail your presentation.

  • Put useful links, references and important acknowledgements on the last slide, and leave it on the screen at the end for people to copy down. No-one wants to see that photo of your colleague's baby child that often seems to quickly replace such material. Your funding bodies will probably not be too happy that their logos were on screen for less than a second. No-one needs a slide to remind them to ask “Questions?", either.

Technical aspects

  • Learn how to use your own equipment. That means, test your laptop and presentation software at home with a TV or monitor, trying all outputs (e.g. VGA and HDMI). Check how it works if the screen is plugged in before and after booting the computer. Check what happens if the computer goes into standby mode with the screen plugged in. Make sure you know how to configure the display, at least to enable/disable outputs and set the resolution. This will stop you from wasting the entire audience's time at the start of your presentation.

  • Wait for the microphone and be patient with any problems. Everyone in the room would rather wait an extra minute than listen to your entire talk with distracting feedback and plosives. If there is feedback, the solution is usually to turn the volume down in combination with moving the microphone closer to your mouth, talking louder, or both. Many people's immediate reaction seems to be the exact opposite. If there is an audio technician at your talk, follow their instructions even if you think you know better.

  • If you're using a presentation remote, make sure you know how it works including what all the buttons do. Many models inexplicably have easy-to-press “screw up my presentation” buttons (credit here to Matt Might's tips).

  • Movies have a tendency to not work. Avoid using them, especially if you're not using your own computer to deliver the talk. At the very least, be ready with a backup option such as a separate file you can open in an instant.

  • Laser pointer batteries don't last long, so there's a high probability they will go flat during your talk. Don't rely on them. A physical pointing stick, where practical, is invariably superior.

  • Disable all kinds of notification your computer might conceivably give during your presentation. A good way is to disable networking completely, but if you do that then anticipate notifications along the lines of “Could not check for updates”.

  • Use the random slide access functionality of your presentation software when referring back to things during the questions. No-one needs a disorienting rapid reverse recap of your slides.

Delivering the talk

  • If there's a podium or lectern, consider using it. It's not necessarily better to try to deliver your message “TED talk style” from the middle of the stage. Having somewhere to put your notes or laptop is useful! The absolute ideal case is when the lectern puts your notes close to a line of sight out to the audience. The lighting is probably also better at the lectern than in the middle of the stage.

  • Face the audience! It's incredible how many people face the screen instead, back to the audience, sometimes even placing themselves out in the audience area. It seems to be because it makes it more comfortable to zap all the works with the laser pointer. Don't do that. There shouldn't be so much material on each slide that the audience needs to be “guided” through, anyway.

  • If you're running short of time, don't make matters worse by talking about how you're running out of time. Don't skip through slides either - use random access functionality instead. Colloquium can help you accurately keep to time.

  • Don't invite questions if there's a session chair - that's their job! There's a certain tension in the audience which needs to be released by applause. Inviting questions confuses the audience about when to clap, and could be considered somewhat disrespectful to the session chair.

More information

Here are some pages with more presentation tips, which I like: