Giving a presentation is not one of my favourite things to do. I hate standing up in front of people and having my words tumble over the top of each other. I am much happier being in the background and working on a written document. But, being able to present in front of peers and coherently convey a message is a good life skill, so I keep practicing. What follows is a reflection on my own presentation process and hopefully some useful tips from the perspective of a fellow presenter, audience participant, and event organiser.
I recently forced myself out of my comfort zone and registered to present at a workshop with higher degree research students. The workshop will be a ‘safe space’ to share my thinking on my project and get feedback. Regardless of the perceived safeness of the space, it still means putting myself and my ideas out on display in front of relative strangers, but sometimes strangers are preferable.
My greatest fear about presenting is the potential for public humiliation, not that this has ever occurred but fears are illogical like that. The workshop is a couple of months away and, quite out of character, I decided to schedule a practice run with some academics in the school. This escalated the timeframe to get my presentation together but also offered me an opportunity to introduce myself, and my project, to a group of school-based academics.
My go to for presentations is PowerPoint. Without slides to support your presentation it can be difficult to maintain attention, unless you are a really good public speaker. I find that a limited number of slides, with dot points and/or images to convey your message, helps explain your topic and keeps you on track. I have tried to work with Sway and Prezi, but I am used to PowerPoint, and while I know I could mix it up a bit with these apps, or even Google Slides or Canva, for now I am sticking with what I know, it’s just easier and one less obstacle to presenting is a good thing. My point is, use whatever works for you. Regardless of the tool you use, there is always the potential for technical issues, whether sharing your presentation in person or online, so a trial run is highly recommended, where possible. I also like to have a back-up plan, like a USB copy of my presentation and printed notes, just in case.
While it is not necessary to reinvent the content for every presentation, it is important to make sure that it is framed to address the needs of the audience. Consider the theme or intention of the presentation and what the audience is expecting from you. What are their interests and what about your project is going to connect with them? Over emphasise this aspect if necessary, it is important that they are engaged and can see the relevance of your presentation to their work. A disengaged audience makes the whole experience unpleasant. Unfortunately, presenting online sometimes has a similar effect if you cannot see your audience to gauge their responses. I find it preferrable to ask participants to have their camera on, and sound off.
My practice presentation was online. I have two screens, so I was able to see what the audience was seeing and my notes. I try not to only read from my notes, but I do write out my speech verbatim. I attempt to improvise as I go so it is not too monotonous, but that sometimes leads to me stumbling over words. Nerves also make me speak faster, which creates issues with pronunciation, so I worked on slowing down and consciously taking a breath between sentences. My presentation went well, except I could not see the participants on screen, so I did feel like I was talking to myself. I think in future I could arrange the content on my screen better to be able to see the video link as well. This is also where a third screen comes in handy.
Timing of your presentation is crucial. I like to practice running through my presentation a few times, just by myself, so that I can check the timing and adjust if necessary. I know that I will probably speak faster during the actual presentation, but I think it is important not to go over time. It is incredibly frustrating when program schedules are blown out by the presenter who did not adhere to their time limit. Adhering to your allocated time demonstrates that you respect everyone else in the room and the limitations that they have on their time. For your own benefit you also want to make sure that you have time to finish making your point, and that you do not have to rush at the end because your time has lapsed.
That brings me to my final point and that is to make sure that there is a point to your presentation. I have always worked on the principle that it is good to tell people what you are going to tell them, to tell them, and then to tell them what you told them. Speak in language that the audience will understand, so that they get your point, and give them an opportunity to ask questions or make comments at the end. Presentations are not a one-way experience, there is the potential for learning on both sides.
In my practice presentation, I was able to share information with my audience, and they provided me with suggestions and recommendations for new directions that I could explore with my research. Fortunately, they did not tell me that my presentation was a disaster, so fear averted for now. I do not think I will ever enjoy presentations, but I will keep practicing so that they at least get easier.