The art of presenting

The art of presenting

Oral presentations inform our peers of our scientific progress. More importantly, they show others who we are - as potential collaborators, as grant applicants, or as potential future colleagues. We need to take our presentations seriously.

Delivering oral presentations is an intrinsic part of the life of an academic - as is writing scientific papers. And yet, whereas our writing is subjected to the dictates of lofty manuals such as those published by the American Psychological Association, our presenting appears entirely unregulated. There are conventions in each discipline that we learn through experience, but copying the habits of others does not ensure a high-quality performance. Why is it so important that we learn how to present?

The importance of presenting

When delivering an oral presentation, you are not just presenting your work, you are presenting yourself. While absorbing your fascinating rhetoric on the psychology of chipmunks, your audience is simultaneously forming an impression of you. Are you confident and excited about your own work? Do you enjoy this academic exchange with your peers or are you waiting for Scotty to beam you up? These impressions are formed whether we intend it or not, and, once formed, can be hard to change.

You are of course free to ignore others' opinions of your person, but in doing so, you fail to take advantage of an important source of self-promotion. If you are looking for a collaborator on a joint project, you'll be looking for someone with relevant knowledge and expertise — but wouldn't you also want that someone to be at least somewhat likeable and fun to butt heads with? An enthusiastic presenter who is able to participate in a lively discussion is more likely to fit that bill than an unintelligible presenter with averted gaze who responds defensively to every question directed their way.

Oral presentations have become an important part of selection procedures such job and grant applications, and for good reason. They are a quick way of informing others not just of your abilities and experiences, but also of you as a person. Grant committees look for representative people with flair, who make a good media impression. Job committees look for colleagues that fit within the team. With the growing competition in academia, the difference between obtaining a desired position or grant, or ending second, can depend on the personal impression you make on those that make the decision.

The beauty of oral presentations

Oral presentations of scientific work have many benefits over written communications, and these may account for their growing popularity. Oral presentations are short and swift — it takes even the most seasoned academic infinitely longer to process a full-length scientific article than it does to listen to an oral presentation of the same material. Because presentations are relatively short, presenters are forced to focus on the key elements of their work while omitting the less important, interesting, or relevant details. And let's be honest, don't we secretly wish that scientific articles were more like that as well? Another benefit of oral presentations is that they usually provide immediate room for discussion with the audience. This exchange of feedback and ideas with our peers is often the most rewarding (but also scary, for some!) element of a presentation.

How to present

In order for presenters to reap the benefits of their oral delivery, they need to learn how to present. Presenting is a skill. As with most skills, it can be mastered with sufficient practice, but it does require a basic knowledge of presentation techniques. The first step in presenting is to entice and excite your audience, and to motivate them to pay attention. If you can’t motivate your audience to listen, you might as well be addressing a blank wall. The second step is to make sure that their efforts are rewarded by making it easy for your audience to comprehend and remember your message. These steps sound deceptively easy, but often require an arsenal of techniques to achieve.

Here are ten tips to get you started:

  1. All presentations have a core message. What is yours?
  2. Deliver your core message at the beginning of your talk. There's no such thing as a spoiler in presentation land.
  3. Practice, practice, practice. You can't bring it if you wing it.
  4. Make sure all eyes are on you, not on your slides.
  5. Take control. This is YOUR show!
  6. Make the most of your voice, posture, and movement.
  7. Use images and limit the amount of text on your slides. People are visual creatures.
  8. View your audience as a box of friendly teddy bears, not an ocean full of sharks.
  9. Some stress is good, and you can learn how not to choke under pressure.
  10. Dress to impress.