10 Tips For Smashing Your Big Presentation

Public speaking. Love it or loath it, it a skill the majority of us have to attempt to master at some point during our career. And with the handy aid that is Microsoft powerpoint, doing a big presentation should be as easy as pie. You have an affective side-kick who, instead of spending minutes trying to vocally or physically (chalk boards be-gone) illustrate your work, can display your data in glorious technicolour with a simple click and beautiful custom-animation 'fade'. And you know your work. You do your work every single day. You can talk about your work. So presenting your beloved project to an audience with your trusty friend powerpoint should be a doddle.

If only it were that easy...

Slideshow presentations can sometimes be more of a hinderance than a help when trying to communicate your work as there are SO many powerpoint-pitfalls: large chunks of tiny text, blurry images with no context and horrendous colour schemes to name a few (I once had a prize-winning lecturer who made white slides with yellow text... like what is that?). Even with the perfect presentation, if your chat isn't engaging, you are more than likely going to lose your audience. Normally as the presenter, you are the expert in the room about the topic of the talk. This can lead to a very easy slip into a 'verbal diarrhoea'-style rambling of complex concepts or assuming the audience knows as much as you, leaving them pining for an explanation. You have to contend with all these problems before even thinking about the nerves which accompany a solo talk in front of an audience. So how can you make sure you pull your big presentation out of the bag? Here are my top 10 tips!

1. Know your Main Message

Why are you doing this talk? What is the one thing you want the audience to remember when they leave the room? Decide on your main message before you double-click on that powerpoint icon and focus your slides around communicating this idea.

2. Make as many slides as minutes you have to present (or less)

As an audience member, there is nothing worse than seeing a 20-minute presentation speaker open a file consisting of 48 slides. Yes, some slides only require a quick click-through but if you are flicking past them, is the message of that slide really pivotal to your presentation? Normally, we underestimate how long it will take us to explain a concept, so give yourself at least 1 minute per slide. If you finish a bit shy of time, it just means more time to discuss your work with the audience and is MUCH better than running over. So a 20 minute talk should have no more than 20 slides, never 48.

3. Display only key words or sentences on slides

Your slides are their to guide your audience through your data and prompt you to remember what to say. They are not there to display huge chunks of text, even if it is the best explanation in the world. In this scenario, there are only two outcomes: your audience read the text and do not listen to you, or you end up reading out the text verbatim and the audience switch off. Both situations equal one thing = disengagement. Keep that text to a minimum and verbally communicate your fab data to the audience yourself.

4. Use images or graphics to help explain complicated ideas

Could you imagine a medical professor trying to explain the anatomy of the human body without a skeleton model or detail pictures of organ structures? It would be veryyyy wordy and veryyyy confusing. If there is a complex idea you have to get across to your audience, a visual aid can be a huge help. You can find great diagrams on the internet, or you could try to draw a simple schematic using powerpoint or illustrator. Then you and your laser pointer can hold the audiences hand and walk them through even the most complicated of scenarios step by step.

5. Keep your explanations simple

Yes, the data in this one graph may have taken you days to collect and hours of tweaking assay conditions, but the audience do not need to know all of that. And if you tell them, you are at risk of losing their attention. It is easy when nervous to start just talking but collect your thoughts, breathe and explain your data in a few sentences; keeping that 'main message' in mind.

6. Hydrate with water and coffee

... or any of your other favourite drinks. For a 30 minute talk, you are likely to sink hours into making slides and prepping your talk so keep hydrated. It is amazing how much we forget to drink when we are busy, so having a big glass of water can really open your eyes to something you have missed out or that would-be-embarrassing typo. If you have left making your slides until the day before, most likely caffeination is the only answer.

7. Practice your presentation out loud

Have you ever had that experience when you have written a word down hundreds of times but never said it out loud? And when you do try to say it, you can't quite get your tongue around it? Well, you definitely do not want that experience while presenting in front of an audience. You may have an idea in your head about what you want to say but just sit with your slides and speak through what you'd like to say on the day. You will find there is a concept which is a bit tricky to explain, or a word you stumble over, so you can work on ironing these problems out. Plus, if you have stood up and said the talk before, it is much easier to do again, even if this time there are people listening.

8. Speak S-L-O-W-L-Y

When you are nervous, your mind starts to race, you might feel a bit hot under the collar and your heart pumps that little bit faster. This is due to the release of adrenaline (see my blog post on stress for the science of this mechanism!) and your speech can also fall victim to adrenaline's functions. You may feel like you are talking at a normal pace but to the audience, you are racing through your introduction quicker than Usain's 100 metres. Take. It. Sloooowwwww. Make natural pauses in between phrases and emphasise words to keep your speech at a normal pace. In your head, you may feel like a tortoise but to the listeners, you sound normal and not nervous at all. Plus, speaking slow gives you time to think about what to say next.

9. Chat through your presentation with a friend in a relaxed environment

There is nothing more soothing that chatting with a friend over a glass of wine. So why not try to explain your up coming presentation to them? This can be a friend in your field or someone completely blind to your work, but either way, speaking to them will help you point out concepts which might be sticky to communicate to your audience and tests you on your own knowledge. Plus it makes your data seem less scary when talking about it to a friendly face. Another tip: get your friend to ask you questions as you go through as they may have some similar thoughts to your future audience.

10. Enjoy presenting your work!

This is the most important thing. You have worked so hard. Not just on this presentation but in general, day in day out, on your project. And now is your chance to share that work with other people. It is not often you get the attention of lots of experienced individuals, so your talk should be viewed as an opportunity to get open and constructive feedback, as well as praise and congratulations. You know your stuff so show it off!




I hope these tips give you a guide to puttin together a killer slideshow and some reassurance if you are feeling worried about an upcoming presentation. Just remember that you are the expert of your work; no one in that room knows more about your topic than you. So relax, smile, speak out and enjoy sharing your amazing work!

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