You’ve been given your first presentation assignment at university. Perhaps you have already done lots of presentations and are used to public speaking, or perhaps you have never spoken in front of a crowd before. Here are a few tips and ideas to think about as you prepare a presentation for the first time.
Less is more
It can be tempting when giving a talk in the early days to try and cram in as much information as you can, for fear that someone will realise you have forgotten key points! However, less is definitely more when giving a presentation, and this will help keep your audience engaged too.
Starting with slides, make sure you don’t have too much information on them – in particular text. Stick to images or diagrams to illustrate points if you can, and remember you don’t need everything you say repeated in text on a slide. Slides, after all, are only a guide for your audience. Your audience won’t have time to read much on slides as they will be listening to you speak. So, think of slides as a tool to support your talk rather than the main event!
When it comes to speaking, think in advance about what you want to say and say it succinctly. Perhaps you can use examples or anecdotes to illustrate points, as this may help your audience remember the key themes. But don’t try and say too much too fast, as the eyes of your audience will slowly glaze over!
It can be helpful to critically evaluate the presenting style used by those delivering your lectures and classes as you prepare your presentation. Do you like the pace they speak at? What are their slides like? Is there too much information or just enough?
Practice, practice, practice
It can be easy to assume that once you’ve made your slides you’re good to go. However, the hardest part of a presentation is often the delivery. The key thing about delivering a talk is to practice it as much as you can in advance. What do you say? What speed to do you speak at? Where do you look? All these things can be ironed out with practice. Why not do a run through for your friends, family, flat mates, dog (or ideally all of the above)? Another good option can be to practice it yourself looking in a mirror – this can be hard to do, but you can learn a lot while looking at yourself straight in the eye!
For presentations in every walk of life there are often strict time limits. It is key to ensure your presentation keeps to the allotted time, and time keeping is often a key component of marking schemes for these types of assignments. You know how annoying it is when a lecturer keeps talking over the allotted time for a lecture – and your audience will feel the same way too! It is essential to practice timings in advance. And if it comes to it, too short is definitely better than too long!
Deliver to your audience
When giving your talk, think about your audience and deliver the talk to them. Often when people give a presentation for the first time they face the screen to read things off their slides. Research has shown that you will quickly lose your audience if you turn your back to them, even for short time periods. So make sure you always face your audience! Eye contact is also important. While it might be off-putting to lock eyes on someone sitting in front of you, it is also not helpful to look at the ground. The best option here is to look out across your audience, perhaps scanning over and back but not locking eyes with anyone in particular. Another method can be to look at a point at the back of the room. Both these give the impression you are speaking directly to the audience, and will help hold their attention.
Think about position, and body language
It is worth thinking in advance about where you will stand in the space you will be giving your presentation in. Is there a podium? Which side of the screen will you stand on? Will you have a clicker/pointer? Coming across these issues the day of the presentation can cause extra stress. If you can, go to the room where your presentation will be in advance and think about where and how you will stand. Better still do a practice in the space so you have a good feeling for how everything will be on the day.
Body language is also important when presenting. Try to avoid doing something with your hands that might distract your audience, such as playing with a pen or piece of paper. To avoid the temptation, don’t bring anything you could potentially fiddle with on the day!
Some people may feel the need to use notes when giving a presentation. In my experience this can often take away from the quality of the delivery so, if you can, try and get in enough practice that you don’t need them. There can also be the option to have some notes in presenter mode when using PowerPoint, so that you can see them but your audience can’t. This can be helpful and I use it sometimes during lectures that I give. However, if considering this you really need to know the machine you are using and whether presenter mode will be an option, while also working extra hard to focus on your audience, so for both those reasons I think best not to rely on them either, if you can.
Format and compatibility
A final consideration when giving a presentation is to think about how you will transport it and upload it. Will you be using your own laptop? If so, do you need HDMI or VGA connection? You may be asked to email or upload the presentation somewhere in advance, or you may be asked to bring it on a USB stick or equivalent on the day. Make sure you follow all instructions carefully, as they are usually designed to avoid hiccups! For example, don’t assume you will be able to download your presentation from Google Drive when you have been asked to email it in advance. Consider having a backup somewhere in case your original plan doesn’t work. And finally think about compatibility issues. What format have you saved the presentation in? Is it compatible on different machines (e.g. PC vs Mac)?
Increasingly, presentations are taking place online as well as in person. Many of the things to think about remain the same. For online presentations additional considerations are where your camera is placed, what is in the background, and how you look and sound. All of these can be tested in advance.
I will always remember my first presentation. It was in my third year of undergrad, and it was about the plant Juniperus communis. I was so nervous, and spoke way too fast on the day, but I actually enjoyed it! I learnt a lot from the process that I have implemented over the years to improve the talks that I give. Presenting is a skill you will use throughout your life so practice it, learnt from it – and enjoy it! Good luck!
There is lots of great information out there on giving presentations. Here are two links I find particularly helpful:
“A talk to remember”: https://forestprime.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/atalktoremember.pdf
“Advice on giving a good PowerPoint presentation”: https://www.maa.org/sites/default/files/pdf/students/undergrad/Gallian.pdf