Friday, March 16, 2007


How not to give a presentation

I recently attended a presentation by a PhD candidate, something we have often here. The student's work was good, and when he got to that core part of his presentation it was interesting to see what he's doing, how he's doing it, and what his results are. But what surrounded that core was in many ways a lesson in how not to do presentations. Given that the guy is young and has little experience, I think he actually did reasonably well — many of these faults are taught to us, explicitly or by example, and it takes experience to see what works for one's own presentations.

I decided, then, to write up a little list of some major presentation faults, some of which I saw that morning and some of which I see often elsewhere. That these are “faults” is my opinion, of course, so consider that, agree or disagree as you like (and discuss it in the comments if you want to), and take what advice suits you from this. These are numbered but are in no particular order, though I've tried to group them in broad categories: overall organization, presentation style, and abuse of computer tools.

  1. Don't overdo the outline thing.
    Yeah, “they” often teach us that when you give a presentation you first tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em, then tell 'em, then tell 'em what you told 'em. That's fine as a general concept, but here's the thing: when you do it, don't make it so obvious that it's trite. Look at this post, and consider the first two paragraphs. They're the “introduction”, the “tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em” part. And if I were doing this as a presentation, I might say it just the way I did here. It's distracting and silly to read your introduction as an outline: “In this presentation, I'm going to tell you about my work. First, I'll tell you how I came to choose this subject. Then I'll talk about the design of the experiment. Then I'll tell you about....”
    Similarly, at the end it's fine to repeat some key points, but don't rehash the whole agenda to remind the audience that you covered everything. The important part of “tell 'em what you told 'em” is to make sure your audience leaves with those key points in their minds. Set up your summary accordingly.
  2. Look at your audience, not at your slides.
    Now that we're usually projecting our slides from a computer, and we usually have a computer screen facing us with an image of the slides, this is less of a problem than it used to be. But I still see it violated often. When you give a presentation, you should be addressing your audience. Know your material well enough that you only need brief glances at your slides (or your notes). Do not stand there with your bad side to the audience, staring up at the screen. It's just bad.
    A related, positive technique is to engage your audience. That's not appropriate for some formal presentations (say, a speech before Congress), but in less-formal situations consider asking questions or prompting the audience to fill in something obvious. It may seem quaint, but if it's done well (be careful not to treat them like third-graders unless they are) it keeps them alert and attentive.
  3. Don't read your slides to the audience.
    They can read them themselves. Use the slides as notes, memory jogs, talking points. If the text on a bullet is more than half a dozen words (give or take), think again about what to put in the text. If they'll be taking your slides with them, consider putting details that you want them to have in speaker notes, or in a sidebar that isn't projected during your presentation.
    It's OK to have an occasional bullet that's just so imporant and self-explanatory that you simply read it and let it sink in, and nothing more. But that should be rare. In general, if it's important enough to put in your bullet list, it's worth spending at least a little time talking about.
  4. Don't wiggle your laser pointer on every bullet.
    That's a nice laser pointer you have there. Use it properly — and the same goes for those long sticks we used to use before we had cheap lasers (actually, I still prefer the sticks, and use them when I need to point). It's rare, indeed, that you'll need to point at the bullet items, one at a time. Point at one particularly important one when you get to it. Use the pointer when you have a diagram and you need to draw attention to a part of it. Don't spend the whole presentation pointing. For one thing, it's distracting to have the speaker circling every bullet with the pointer. For another, it means that you're looking at your slides, not at your audience (see item 2).
  5. Watch out for verbal tics.
    This implies that you have to learn what yours are, and then learn to avoid them. Do you say “you know” all the time? Do you start a lot of your sentences with “So”? Do you have hackneyed phrases that show up far too often? “At the end of the day....” “When all is said and done....” I once sat in a seemingly endless 45-minute presentation by someone who said “in terms of” constantly (“In terms of time, we had to spend an extra two months on the project in terms of the schedule.”). Learn to avoid those sorts of things, lest your audience spend more energy counting your tics than they do listening to what you're saying.
  6. You are the presenter; PowerPoint is a tool.
    This is the general intro to the “abuse of computer tools” part of the list. As you read the rest of the list, think of other things that fall into this category, and remember that flashy PowerPoint tricks can be dizzying and — a word I've used a couple of times above and that applies to most of what's below — distracting. Make sure your audience leaves remembering you and the great job you did with the presentaion.
  7. Avoid busy backgrounds and cutesy, unnecessary images.
    Images here and there can make a presentation less humdrum, more appealing. But think about what you're putting there. Don't put an image on every slide. Think about whether someone looking at your slides later will say, “What on Earth is a chicken doing on that slide?” Make sure that any backgrounds or borders you use don't make the text hard to read. Prefer visual simplicity to overly busy slides (but strike a balance — you don't have to make it look like your presentation was last updated in 1972, when we used monospace fonts and all caps).
  8. Don't mix slide transitions, and why not avoid them altogether?
    I find that the best way to switch from one slide to the next is simply to switch from one slide to the next. But if you must use slide transitions, pick one style and stick with it for the presentation. Please don't show off how well you can click your mouse — we all know how easy that is to do. It's distracting to have slide 2 fade in, slide 3 appear in a checkerboard pattern, slide 4 fly in from the left, slide 5 spiral in, and so on. Pick a transition style and use it consistently throughout the presentation.
  9. Don't “hide” your bullets.
    In the days of transparencies (or “foils”, as we used to call them, supposedly a recursive acronym for “Foil Over Incandescent Light”) people sometimes used to place a piece of paper over the transparency, and uncover the bullet items one at a time as they got to them. Now, we use “animations” in PowerPoint to do the same thing, making the bullet items appear when we want them to. I almost always dislike that, and have disliked it since the days of the paper on the foil. I find it distracting and unnecessary.
    As with other things, it's fine if you have a particular item you don't want them to see ahead of time. But it should be the exception, and you should be able to put your finger on specifically why you did it.
  10. Use animations very sparingly.
    This is related to the previous item: Don't just avoid using animations to hide your bullet items; avoid using animations altogether. Each time you want to use one, think about why, and carefully decide whether it's worth it. I've used animations to build a diagram a piece at a time, and that's a fine use for them. Using them to show the flow through a system might be good too. I have one slide that I use in presentations about spam, which shows some difficulties and some proposed solutions, and then, when I get to the right point in my talk and click the button, an animation plasters “It's a hard problem!” on top of it all. I like the slide, but even so, it sometimes makes me think of a bad campaign ad (“Wrong for America!” stamped on the opposition candidate's photo).
    Also remember that if you're going to give your PowerPoint file to people to look at later, they might not be looking at it in presentation mode, and they might not see the animations. Make sure it at least makes sense with the whole thing rendered at once.

That's my list. I can probably think of more, and I know you can think of more (and you'll probably disagree with some of mine). Just remember that the purpose of a presentation is to communicate information, and you do that best by having a clear, professional presentation style and not distracting your audience with visual fluff.


Ray said...

It's interesting how things change. Back in the days of 'real' foils I recall one speaker in particular who eschewed printed foils, preferring instead to write and draw everything by hand - often just a short time before his talk. His foils were always simple and straightforward, and his presentations were among the best I have ever heard. Skip forward two decades to a project with which I was involved a couple of years ago when a rather over-enthusiastic colleague (whose fast-path bit was obviously flipped 'on') presented a series of charts I can only describe as psychedelic. Even at only a few pages in length, these would arrive as PowerPoint files consuming tens of megabytes, and when you tried to read them they were so full of eye candy that there was little room left for the meat of the presentation. The execs appeared to love this stuff, which I found rather depressing, longing instead for those long-ago, hand-crafted foils.

Verbal tics are, like, well, like, you know, they're like fascinating. Our car mechanic has developed one, which he inserts into his speech with alarming regularity: "as far as it goes". It can be quite entertaining when he says something along the lines of "I took your car for a test drive, as far as it goes", but one does tend to start counting the occurrences and not notice what he's actually telling you. Hmmm... perhaps that's why he does it - to distract us from the bad news - as far as it goes!

Maggie said...

This is something I make my Computer Literacy students read:

(The 10 do's and don'ts of using Powerpoint.)

There is some overlap with your ideas.

I laughed a little at your "tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you've told them" point, because I'd be delighted if the undergrads in my class could structure an essay that well, even if it were obvious. For people who already have some idea how to write, that is very good advice. For most people, I think it's far beyond their abilities!!

(I had one student who kept writing "I know for a fact," which was humorous when he was saying he knew for a fact that if Edison hadn't lived the world would be... a difficult thing to know about factually. Other students would start sentences with "him," e.g. "Him and Monroe decided to..." and only one student in my class actually wrote an essay with a conclusion. Most of them just trailed off, or jammed all the extra facts that didn't fit into their essay into the last paragraph!

But you have good advice. I'm just a little depressed at the quality of writing I'm seeing at the college level.

Barry Leiba said...

Maggie, I thought you were talking about eighth-graders, until you said "at the college level". Yow!

"I know for a fact" reminds me of "literally". I know for a fact (because I heard it on NPR this morning) that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell just said that legislation mandating a troop withdrawal will "literally tie the president's hands behind his back." When I heard that, I literally died laughing.