Seven ideas to improve your presentations

Sharing your findings is an important part of academia. A common way to do this is by presenting in front of research groups or at conferences. However, making a good presentation can be pretty hard. Over the years, I have seen hundreds of presentations and lectures in different academic fields and different settings. Some of them I remember fondly, others I have trouble forgetting. Over time, I started noticing some key differences between good and bad presentations. In this blog, I will share seven of those.

Note: This is not a comprehensive list or tutorial for making a good presentation! These are simply some principles/ideas that may give you insights in how to improve your own presentations.

1. Let your voice lead and your slides support

Do you use your voice or the slides to convey specific information? To answer this question, we have to take a step back: Why are we using slides to begin with? Speeches have been around for millennia, yet they did not need Powerpoint to be efficient. Furthermore, using both your voice and slides means that the audience has to focus on two things at the same time, and we know that humans are bad at multitasking. So why use slides at all?

The main purpose of slides is to support your speech. By both hearing and seeing the information, your audience will likely understand and follow your story better. Furthermore, in order to create mental links between concepts you need to go back to previous information. While you cannot rewind speech, you can look at a slide and simply look at previously presented concepts. Your slides act as a clipboard of information that helps the audience grasp your story.

Two common mistakes in presenting arise from not properly implementing this. First, the information on your slides should follow the story that you are telling. Audiences will lose their attention if you start talking about things that are not on the slides, or if the slides contain different terms than your speech. Second, some presenters will fill their slides with the exact same text (word for word) as their speech. Consequently, people will start reading from your slides instead of listening to what you have to say, and it will be hard to get people to focus on your voice again. It is sufficient to only write the key terms from your speech on the slides.

2. Build up information from your audience’s perspective

A common problem in presentations is that it is not clear to the audience why certain concepts are even discussed. You may have worked months on a project and have gotten familiar with every detail. However, your audience only has minutes to grasp that same body of information. You have to structure the information in a way that the audience can follow

You have to consider how your information is structured, and how one concept builds upon other concepts. I always visualize it as a brick wall: In order to get to a certain level, you need to build a strong foundation with the right concepts. If you do not build a strong foundation, your audience will never reach the desired level of understanding.

This analogy has two important implications for presenting new information. First, your audience has to know and understand all the required supporting concepts. This means that you have to explain all supporting information, or you have to assume that your audience already knows it. Second, any new concepts you introduce should be relevant for your presentation. Either they are introduced to support later concepts, or they are there to fulfill the goals of your presentation (e.g. presenting the findings of your study). Any information that does neither is irrelevant and should therefore be removed from your presentation.

3. Limit each slide to one topic

The use of slides forces us to create units of information. So, what do we present per slide?

Here, I refer back to tip #2: Consider the building blocks of information. Your presentation should have specific goals (e.g. presenting your results), and each slide should be a building block that is used to reach those goals.

The way that I implement this myself, is by taking the following steps. First, I consider what the goals of my presentation are. Second, I consider what information I have and where my presentation should start. Third, I create a rough draft of the narrative thread, i.e. what information I should present in order to achieve my goals. Fourth, I divide the narrative thread into steps/slides, and for each step/slide I consider what the foundational building blocks are. This process will help you structure your presentation, and it also shows you where you need to put more emphasis.

4. Prefer images over text

Slides should primarily contain images, and should only contain text when it the best way to convey the information. The reason for this has to do with how your working memory functions. Working memory is the part of cognition that you use to hold information and think about it. Interestingly, there are separate channels in your working memory for auditory and visual information. During presentations, the presenter's speech is processed in the auditory channel, while images on slides go to the visual channel.

A problem arises when text is shown on slides. Reading text actually may be processed by the auditory channel, especially if people use an inner voice during reading. This means that the auditory channel is processing both the presenter's speech and the text on the slides, while the visual channel is barely used. Consequently, your audience may have trouble following both lines of information. It is better to balance the load on the channels, thus it is better to present images whenever you can.

Of course, there are cases where text is simply superior, such as when you have to show a list of items or when you are discussing a quote. Additionally, it is very useful to show key terms on the slides (see #1), and to give textual summaries. The key concept here is that you should be mindful of when you use text, and challenge yourself to choose the best way to convey information.

5. Present information in bite-size pieces

Whenever you design a slide, try to think of how your audience examines that slide. If you present a lot of information at the same time (e.g. multiple images with text) then your audience likely does not know where to focus their attention. Any time that the audience spends on searching through your slides is time that they will not pay attention to your story. Some presenters solve this by using a laser pointer, but using a laser pointer too often is distracting in and of itself.

To avoid this, information should be presented in bite-size pieces. When presenting complex images, you can choose to first only show part of it, and as your story unfolds you can slowly show more and more of the image. This allows you to control where the audience is looking, and it makes it easier for the audience to follow your story. You can also highlight sections using colored borders or other contrasting methods. If you are using images from other sources, consider removing words and parts that are not relevant to your story so that your audience knows what to focus on. Finally, when displaying tables, try to consider whether all displayed information is necessary for your story. It is ok if you do not present everything, your audience can always ask questions afterwards.

6. Rehearse the presentation both during and after design

It is important to go through the presentation a couple of times while you are creating it. You may have thought of a good structure for your presentation beforehand (see #3), but while creating the presentation it can become clear that it does not work well. The best way to discover whether your story flows is by going through your slides while still designing them. This will help you identify bottlenecks, e.g. parts that do not logically build up information (see #2) or slides where you need to modify the text/images (see #4 and #5).

Similarly, once the presentation is done, you have to go through it at least once. Don’t memorize the presentation word by word. Rather, you should memorize the narrative thread, i.e. the main message of each slide and the order in which the slides appear. By going through the presentation a couple of times, you will slowly realize how to best tell your story and how to use the slides to support it.

7. Add your personal flair

Finally, do not forget that this is your presentation. Do not be afraid to give it your personal twist. For example, I like to put in some jokes, because that is just how I like to present. You can put in some funny images if you would like to. Just do not overdo it, and always remain professional.

Sander Lamballais
Postdoctoral Researcher

Neurobiologist, genetic epidemiologist, R user.