Presentation tips

Today I delivered a short discussion with the Master's of Clinical Science (Manipulative Therapy) students here at Western on presentation tips.  Since I know many readers of this blog post will at least occasionally  have to present something to a group, whether that be a clinical inservice, a lecture for students, or a podium or breakout session at a conference, I figured I might as well share some of the tips I've learned over the years of doing this, should it help someone who's just starting out on this path.

With that all said, here are my tips:

  1. Find a presentation/teaching framework that you like, and get good at it.  I like the BOPPPS model from the Instructional Skills Workshop (ISW).  BOPPPS stands for:
    • Bridge: Start with something to engage your audience.  Why is what you're about to say important?  An emotional element is especially effective.
    • Objectives: Be clear about what it is you're expecting your audience to get from your talk.
    • Pre-test: Recognize that your audience may already have considerable background in your topic area, or this may be completely new.  There are many ways to gauge the general knowledge level of your audience.  This is important both to serve as a baseline, and to make sure you're not talking above or below your audience's level.
    • Participatory Learning: This can be hard in a conference setting, but not impossible.  Learning occurs more deeply when people are physically engaged in the activity.  Breakout groups, think-pair-share, dot parade, there are several 'active learning' strategies out there that you can use dependent on your context.
    • Post-Test: Was your teaching effective?  Did your learners learn what you were hoping for? Were your objectives met?  The only way to know is to conduct some kind of post-test.  This can take many forms, from a formal quiz, to 'clickers' or web-based apps like poll everywhere, or even direct questioning.
    • Summary: Summarize the main points of your session.  For serial learning (e.g. university courses), the summary can set the stage for the next session.
  2. Less is more.  If you had to err on the side of either too much information or too little, I would suggest the latter.  There's nothing worse than listening to someone sprint through a presentation just to get all of the information out, speeding through crowded slides and not allowing anyone to really take it all in.  General guidelines are no more than 1 slide per minute of presentation, limit the text and number of bullets on a slide, and where possible use pictures and graphs rather than text to explain a concept.
  3. Avoid the pre-emptive knowledge strike.  I find this is common in novice speakers, especially younger graduate students.  I'm referring to the tendency to describe every nuance of your study in an attempt to completely head off any critical comments.  However, doing so also tends to preempt any conversation at all.  Provide the primary points, and then let those who are truly engaged (which tend to be a minority) to ask for greater clarification during the question period.  In this way you get the main points out to those who just want the quick and dirty 'what's it mean?', and also have the chance to engage in academic discourse with those few who are truly invested.
  4. Beware the laser.  I'm not sure what it is about having something in your hand that compels constant use of that thing, whether it's needed or not.  I always chuckle when I see someone with a laser pointer who underlines or circles every word their reading off the slide, almost like a 'follow the bouncing ball' presentation.  It's unnecessary and distracting.  I prefer to use the mouse on the computer if I need to focus on something.
  5. Use your environment.  A presentation should be like a mini stage show.  You've got lighting (if even just what's emanating from the slide projector), props (lecterns, mics, tables, pointers) and an audience that you can use to full effect.  Want to emphasize a point?  Step into the light a little more.  Want to highlight something on the screen?  Step back into the shadows.  Without being overly dramatic, don't be afraid to pound on the lectern a bit.  There's nothing wrong with showing passion, people really respond to that.
  6. Engage your audience.  Respect that your audience are adults, and come with a lifetime of knowledge and experience rather than being empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge.  Don't be afraid to step out from behind the lectern, remove those perceptual barriers between you and your audience.  Why not ask them a question?  Those who have seen me talk at a conference will know it's not uncommon for me to ask the audience a question and engage them in a bit of discussion.  This shows them you respect their knowledge, and prevents them from falling asleep!
  7. Inject a bit of lightheartedness.  No one expects you to be Jim Gaffigan up on stage.  But you also don't need to be Stoneface McHardScience.  Comedy is in the eye of the beholder of course.  No matter how golden you think a little joke is, it will tank at some point.  Crickets will be chirping.  But you know who else that happens to?  Professional comedians.  At least you won't get heckled, and the chance that you may induce a small chuckle out of some of your audience may be enough to snap everyone back to your topic.  Use jokes sparingly and only when appropriate, but that's what will make you stand out from all the other presenters your audience has heard that day.
  8. Do like the comedians do.  Speaking of professional comedians, they are some of the best public speakers I have ever seen.  Next time you're watching a Gaffigan, Seinfeld, or Foxworthy, step back from the comedy a bit and just observe their behaviors.  Listen to the pace of their voice, the language they use, the amount they move around on stage.  Try to emulate these folks a bit, they've learned from the school of hard knocks so you don't need to.
  9. Drown your 'uh' and 'um' moments.  I will usually have a bottle of water with me during a talk.  This is so I can take strategically-placed drinks whenever I find myself starting to forget where I was going with a statement.  Rather than standing there going 'uh, uh, uh', grab a short drink of water.  No one will think twice about it, and you'll give yourself the chance to get back on track.
  10. Use effective pauses.  This one takes a bit of practice, but every time you want to say 'uh' or 'um', replace that with silence.  Slowing down and not filling every second with sound will give your audience the occasional chance to digest what you just said.  And nothing makes you look more novice than 'uh, um, uh,'.  Pause instead, you'll come across pensive and deep if nothing else.
  11. Address application. There ought to be a reason you're presenting what you're presenting, in some way you should have at least a semblance of how your information should fit into practice.  Even if it's not ready for prime time yet, your audience will be much more likely to engage in your material if they can see where it might fit into the real world.
  12. Wash, Rinse, Repeat.  Most adult learning theories indicate that learning is facilitated when it is applicable, respectful of their existing knowledge, and repeated.  Let me repeat that, repeated.  Yes, repetition appears to be useful.  Almost to the point that it seems a bit over the top, repeat the key messages and those will be the ones that your learners are likely to remember.