• Posted by Konstantin 11.02.2019

    Presentation ClipartPresenting is hard. Although I have had the opportunity to give hundreds of talks and lectures on various topics and occasions by now, preparing every new presentation still takes me a considerable amount of effort. I have had a fair share of positive feedback, though, and have developed a small set of principles which, I believe, are key to preparing (or at least learning to prepare) good presentations. Let me share them with you.

    1. Start off without slides

    Plan your talk as if you had to give it using only a blackboard. Think about what to say and how to say it so that the listener would be interested to look at you and listen to you. You will then discover moments in your speech, where you need to write or draw something on the blackboard. These will be your slides. Remember, that your slides are only there to enhance and illustrate your presentation. Your speech is its main component.

    Of course, preparing slides can be a very convenient way to plan your talk, but try not to fall into the popular trap, where your slides end up being the talk, whilst your own role boils down to basically "playing them back" in front of the audience, so that one may start wondering why are you even there.

    When you are done with your slides, a useful practice is to go over them and remove all of the text, besides the parts which you would really have to scribble on the blackboard, if the slides were not available. For any piece of text you currently have on the slide, ask yourself, what is its purpose. Usually there are just two possible answers:

    1. It is there to help the listener. In this case, what you usually need instead is an illustration. An actual chart, photo or a schematic cartoon, providing the listener with a useful visual aid. Yes, plain text can also be a visual aid sometimes, but it should be your last resort.
    2. Alternatively, you put it there only to help yourself - as a reminder of what to speak about next or what specific wording to use. Delete such texts completely and put some effort into memorizing the talk instead. You can make a paper cheatsheet to peek at during the trickier spots. In general, however, if you find it hard to navigate or memorize your talk, perhaps you should have organized it better in the first place. Which leads us to the second rule:

    2. Structure around questions

    Imagine that you are constrained to explain your point by only asking questions to the audience. The audience would effectively have to present the topic "by themselves" by answering these questions in order. Surprisingly many seemingly complicated topics may be explained in that manner. Of course, you do not need to literally perform the talk by only querying the audience (although I would suggest you try this format at least once - it can be rather fun). The idea is that the imaginary order of questions that need to be asked, is the best order of exposition for your topic. It is this precise order, in which most new statements tend to follow logically from the previous ones not just for you, but also for the audience, who will thus find it easier to track your talk.

    3. Presenting is show business

    Remember that every presentation is a show. Your goal is not to explain something in the most precise manner, but to do it in the most interesting manner. There is a caveat, of course: the notion of "interestingness" depends on your audience. Presentations made for schoolkids, students, professors and grandmothers differ not because they need to be told different things, but because you need to tell them the same things in different ways. Thus, always tailor your talk to the audience.

    One basic rule which fits most audiences, though, is the following: if you may include interactivity in your talk (i.e. if the format and formalities allow for that), do so. The most basic element of interactivity in a typical presentation would be a question to the audience. There are two main kinds of questions:

    1. "Leading questions", where you ask the audience to explain the concepts on their own (see part 2 above).
    2. "Quiz questions", for checking whether the listener is still on board. This can provide you with real-time feedback and let you know when you need to slow down or speed up.

    Smart combination of these two kinds of interactions would nearly always bump the interestingness of your talk up a notch. It is not enough to know what and when to ask, however. The choice of who to direct your questions to is just as important. Try to avoid the widely spread practice of simply throwing questions into the audience "in general" and giving word to whoever jumps up first. This would often engage just the few most extraverted or excited listeners, leaving the rest feeling a bit like outsiders (although semi-anonymous surveys can be fun sometimes). Unfortunately, communicating with the audience is an art which requires a lot of practice and failed attempts to master. While you are not there yet, let me suggest one simple recipe, which I found to be unexpectedly useful for student audiences - the talking pillow game. Pick an object (not necessarily a pillow) and give it to a random listener. That listener now has to answer your next question and pass the object on to their neighbor.

    Of course, asking questions is just the most basic way of introducing useful interaction. Some concepts can be explained in the format of an interactive demo. Try devising one, whenever you can. Keep your listeners awake at all costs.

    4. Experiment a lot

    Remember that every presentation is a chance to try something new. Feel free to experiment with the various styles and formats every time (this is especially true while you are a student and "failing" a yet-another seminar talk is not really a big deal). Try practicing blackboard-only talks. Do a talk where you only ask questions. Try making a talk where you have no text on the slides at all. Make your talk into an interactive workshop. Experiment with the slide types and formats. Try sitting/standing/walking during the talk. Dance and sing (if you're up to). Trying is the only way to figure out what works and what does not work for you.  In any case, carefully rehearse all the elements of your talk which do not yet come naturally. For the first 100 times this would mean rehearsing all of the talk.

    5. Film yourself

    Always ask someone to film your presentation. Watching yourself is the only way to discover that you are holding your hands strangely, not looking into the audience, swinging back and forth, closing your eyes, and so on. Watching yourself is often a painfully embarrassing, but a pretty much mandatory procedure, if you want to get better.


    Posted by Konstantin @ 1:35 am

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    1. Sergey on 30.04.2019 at 06:08 (Reply)

      Edward Tufte, an American statistician, wrote passionately against (Powerpoint) slides. See, for example, "Visual and Statistical Thinking: Displays of Evidence for Making Decisions" where he presents two case studies, John Snow's exploration of the causes of the 1854 London cholera epidemic and the 1986 space shuttle Challenger explosion.

      Tufte makes a convincing case that the use of slides for scientific decision-making was basically responsible for the explosion of the shuttle

      1. Konstantin on 04.05.2019 at 22:39 (Reply)

        I re-read the chapter you mention, and I do not see anything which could be interpreted as "writing passionately against (Powerpoint) slides" nor that "the use of slides was responsible for the explosion of the shuttle" (whatever you might have even meant by that).

        What Tufte says is, in simple terms, that there are good and bad ways of analyzing data. In his own words:

        When we reason about quantitative evidence, certain methods for
        displaying and analyzing data are better than others. Superior methods are more likely to produce truthful, credible, and precise findings. The difference between an excellent analysis and a faulty one can sometimes have momentous consequences.

        "Powerpoint slides", in turn, is just a canvas for putting up illustrations and no sane statistician would argue that illustrating ideas visually is bad. It's just some illustrations are better than the others.

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