School of Computing and Software Engineering
Southern Polytechnic State University
Abstract: Success at presenting research requires skills different from those needed to do the research. Yet presentation is nearly as important as content in getting your message across to the audience. Presentation skills are not difficult, but some of them are non-obvious. We offer a few simple rules to make your presentation more effective, and so communicate your research more effectively.
Robert A. Heinlein has told us that one need only do two things to be a successful writer. First, he must write. Second, he must sell what he has written. The same thing is true of being a successful presenter. First you must do your research and write about it. Then you must sell it to your professors and your colleagues. Your professors have credentials in your area of research and will spend time studying your paper, but you'll have only a few minutes to present your ideas to your colleagues, who will not have an opportunity to read the paper.
A good presentation will not conceal poor scholarship, but a poor presentation can negate even a very good job of research. The skills necessary to present your research are different from those which were required to do it. Some of them are also non-obvious. Fortunately, the most important of them are based on simple rules.
A presentation consists of two parts: The things you tell your audience and the things you show them. Generally, you will tell your audience your findings and why they are important, and show them photographs, charts, and diagrams to reinforce what you are telling them. We will treat each of these parts of a presentation in turn.
A disorganized presentation is a lost cause from the start. Remember that the material you will present is new to most members of the audience. This means that the audience will have no context to serve as a framework for what you tell them. You must provide that context and framework yourself. Give your colleagues a brief outline of what you intend to cover before you launch into the meat of your research. The overall outline of your presentation should be an introduction, a body, and a conclusion, more colorfully expressed this way:
You must impose some organization on the body of your presentation as well. Assuming your paper is well-organized, you can use it as an outline. Go through a copy of your paper and highlight the salient points. Copy each highlighted phrase to the top line of a 3x5 card. Then, without referring to the paper, write on each card the additional phrases which will remind you of what you want to say about each point. This provides you with a set of notes from which to speak, organized the same way as your paper. And it automatically saves you from the cardinal sin of reading your paper to the audience.
Putting your speaking notes on 3x5 cards makes it easy to adjust and amend them, and they'll sit unobtrusively on a desk or lectern. While it may seem that speaking extemporan-eously has a certain panache, there is no panache in rambling or missing important thoughts, then jumping back to catch them. Unless you are an accomplished public speaker, that's what will happen if you try to speak without notes. The most effective "extemporaneous" speeches will have been practiced for hours beforehand. Using notes is easier and just as effective.
The fact that you have good notes doesn't relieve you of the responsibility of practicing your presentation. You should go through it at least three or four times, including once the day it is to be given. Get a colleague to listen to the presentation and note any awkwardness so that you can make corrections. This is also the way to be sure your presentation fits in the allotted time and that the things you say match the things you show. We'll have more to say about these very important topics.
As you practice your presentation, pay attention to what your voice is doing, perhaps even tape-recording yourself. Even the best notes won't save a paper delivered in a monotone or a whisper. A little attention beforehand will let you avoid those fatal flaws.
When the day comes and you're standing in front of your colleagues, talk to them, not over their heads or "at" them. The easiest way to do this is to pick four or five interested-looking people in various parts of the room and talk directly to each of them for a part of the presentation. You can be less formal than was necessary in the written paper. When you come to an important point, don't be afraid to emphasize it.
If your presentation is well-organized and you've practiced it enough not to lose that organization, if your voice sounds animated and interesting, and if you talk to your colleagues, they'll hear what you have to say. Otherwise, they'll be asleep, confused, or (worst of all) gone by the time you're done.
You will have a limited amount of time to present your paper. If you go over your allotted time, you will be wasting the time of your colleagues, and they will resent it. If you go more than a minute or two over time, the professor will ask you to stop speaking. If that happens, the only thing the audience will remember is that you had to be told to quit.
Prevent this by ruthlessly paring your material until you can deliver your talk in the allotted time in front of the mirror at home. Then cut out another minute. If all goes well, you can use that minute for questions. If you have to start late or have projector trouble you'll be thankful for that minute's grace. Notice that if you've organized your notes on cards, it's easy to remove a card or two to cut out some time.
The things you show your audience can enhance the things you tell them, or they can detract and distract. Well thought out and well prepared visual aids will reinforce your points and help your colleagues to remember them. Disorganized, crowded, sloppy, or difficult to read visual material is worse than none at all. As with the things you say, the rules for preparing the things you show are few and simple. To spurn them is to court disaster. Most important is to be sure your colleagues can see the things you show them. That sounds simplistic and obvious, but how many times have you heard someone tell you to "look at line 47" of an impenetrable table on an out-of-focus slide? Don't do it! If line 47 is important, put it on a foil by itself.
Not every presentation needs visual aids. You should decide whether yours does based upon the content of your paper. Graphs and diagrams are good candidates for visual aids. Tables of numbers go over less well because it's hard for the audience to extract meaningful information from them in the time available for a classroom presentation. In some cases it's better to pick out the most important relationships in a table and show them by themselves. Even if you don't need visual aids, you may want to use them to help get your ideas across. The main ideas which you wrote on the top lines of the 3x5 cards can easily be made into a bulleted list on a slide, poster, or foil. If you do this, you have to get the timing right before you make your visuals. This is a particularly good application for progressive disclosure, which is described below.
Overhead foils are the most effective visual medium for classroom-size areas. For larger rooms, you may want to use slides. Visual aids are most effective if they display only a single idea each. On each foil, put one key phrase, a single line from a table, or a line drawing illustrating a single point. A simple, pointed visual aid focuses attention on that point. A crowded, jumbled visual aid not only conveys no information, it distracts your audience.
An effective technique for use with visual aids is progressive disclosure. If you put a list of three things on a foil, the audience will read all three, anticipate what you will say, and begin thinking of other things. Use three foils instead. Foil one has only the first item. Foil two has items one and two, and foil three has all three. If you have access to fancy facilities, have the current item highlighted or shown in a different color. But beware of putting long lists on visuals. If a list has more than about five items, break it up. Don't try to add material to your foils on the fly. If you must build up an image, do it with overlays.
Preview your visual material before your presentation, then don't fool with it any more. Disobey this rule and you'll face the lurking horror of an out-of- sequence or upside-down foil. The horror is that you won't notice: you'll be telling your colleagues one thing and showing them another. Or worse, you will notice and try to recover or apologize. Then you fall prey to the foil fumbles. While you're saying, "I have a foil that illustrates that point... around here... somewhere..." your audience starts thinking about something else.
Be sure you know how the equipment works before you stand up to speak. You'll look silly if you have to use up your valuable speaking time fumbling for a switch.
Follow these few rules and you'll have effective visual aids and be able to use them effectively.
A good presentation won't disguise inadequate research, but a bad presentation can obscure even the best work. If you speak from an outline rather than reading your paper, and talk to your audience you will hold their interest. If your visual aids emphasize the points you are making rather than detracting from them, the audience will better understand what your are saying. If you keep to your time limit your professor and colleagues will like you for it.
Copyright © by Bob Brown. Some rights reserved.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Last updated: 2014-10-02 7:17