Presentation tips: advice for beginners

Our KCPC Monday morning meetings are an informal occasion for members of the four research groups to share their scientific results, broaden their scientific horizons, encourage discussion, receive feedback, and hopefully solve problems. We encourage and hope for a relaxed and friendly environment. The meeting is an important opportunity to practice your public speaking, and it should be taken seriously. A few simple rules apply to giving a talk:

  • Be prepared. Prepare your slides well in advance, and practice on your own or with a friend, keeping exact count of time until you are feeling confident. Initially you might need to do this several times before the talk, but you will soon improve. Even expert speakers need preparation.
  • Turn up well before hand, and set-up projector and computer in time.
  • Keep to time. If you find you are running late close to the end of the talk, skip some slides but make sure to conclude well.

Concentrate on three aspects when preparing a talk:

Content

The amount of topics and level of detail f the seminar should be appropriate to the audience – cut out any details that are unnecessary, and focus on the important bits. Avoid having “outline” and “summary” slides, if your talk is only 20 minutes long.

Be enthusiastic about the important parts of your work, point out what is cool, or innovative about your results.

Be positive: don’t apologise in your talk; if you don’t say anything nobody will notice.

Be professional: be precise and scientific. If you don’t remember a detail, don’t fumble, just say that you have to look it up, but then make sure to do so afterwards.

Jokes: hard to get them right when you are just starting; it’s safer to keep them out altogether. That sort of thing comes (sometimes) with experience and confidence.

Structure

Be concise. Use words which are concise, meaningful, and precise. This is not easy, and requires having concepts clear in your head before you speak, that’s why you need preparation.

A good talk has a beginning, body, and conclusion; i.e. an introduction, which provides background and motivation, a summary of important results, and a discussion, which concludes the topic, provides insight, and possible applications or future work.

Use pauses: think beforehand of what you want to say, and pause in between separate concepts; this: this gives enough time for concepts to sink in – a pause can be worth 100 words in explaining which concepts are important, or explaining a complicated graph.

Choose an acceptable pace: not too fast, nor too slow; an approximate guideline could be ca. 1 slide/minute, even though this will vary greatly depending on the content.

Delivery

Speak to your audience: speak directed towards the audience, and make eye contact; if you use pointers or computer screens that make you turn away from the audience, wait to speak until you have turned around again.

Body language: avoid pacing back and forth, fidgeting, scratching your head constantly, etc.; these tics can be very distracting and even annoying to the audience.

Voice: make sure the volume and tone is such that you are audible by everybody in the room; at a conference or in a large room use a microphone.

Limit the number of fillers and unnecessarily repeated words, such as “um” and “ahs” or other unseemly noises, over use of words/phrases like "and", "so", "but", "you know", "basically" and others. Become aware of how frequently this habit invades your speaking. Replace them with a pause.

Cherish questions

Questions are precious feedback on how interesting or clear your talk was. If you are not sure you understand the question, repeat it in your own words, and ask for confirmation to the questioner. If you’ve understood it, but you’re not sure of the answer, think about it for a while; relax, it’s OK to have some silence. If you simply don’t know the answer, just say so in a way that is not embarrassing to you or to the questioner. If you receive a nasty personal attack, remain kind and calm and ignore the subtext – just answer to the question for its face value – you can always beat up the guy later.

Feedback

Give freely and ask for supportive feedback. Before the seminar starts, ask a friend or a more expert colleague to evaluate you, and see them after the seminar to hear how you went. Your evaluator should be positive and supportive, while still pointing out what could be improved. A good rule of thumb on giving feedback is: “CRC”, i.e. “commend – recommend – commend”, i.e. sandwich any suggestions on improvement between two positive aspects of the seminar, and always conclude on an encouraging note.