Some thoughts on making presentations!

At the Institute, Department of Metallurgy is one of the first to start the culture of a research symposium organised by students, for students. The sympo, as it is affectionately called is an annual (two day) affair. Among other things, it helps us hone our presentation skills and interact and learn about our colleagues in the Department.

This year’s sympo, which is the 19th in the series, came to an end just now. I attended nearly 60% of the talks. The talks were of uniformly high quality; the speakers rarely ever overshot the time; the chairmen steered the sessions smoothly; the food, coffee and tea was arranged (and arrived) at the right moments in right quantities; the lights went off and on and the correct instant, while the computer worked pucca. Now, if you think I am exaggerating, you do not know the organising skills of the students of the Department.

While all the talks were certainly above ordinary (both in terms of the quality of the material and its presentation), I noticed that a few small changes in some of the presentations would have improved their quality still more. I noted them down in my abstract booklet — more as a note to myself, for future reference. I am putting them up here in this post since

(1) It could help as a reference to me as well as others; and,

(2) There might be some suggestions/comments from the readers of the blog which could be of use (again to me, and others).

So here we go! Oh! before that, a few disclaimers:

(1) These are not the ultimate rules on Presentation: HOW TO; if so, I would be giving wonderful presentations everytime I go up on the podium. Rather these are the guidelines. Like in all arts, in giving presentations too, you learn the rules, and then you bend some of them just to see how much of it you can get away with, and/or break them creatively. So, next time if you see me violating one of my own tips here, I am just being creative 😉

(2) Though I use the Sympo as an excuse to write this post and publish it here, none of what I say here is with reference to any particular person/presentation; none of what I say here is a criticism or evaluation of the presentations; it is more like my response to some of the presentations.

(3) Thank you Karthik for suggestion 10.

So, here we go.

(1) It is a good idea not to write more than a few sentences in a slide; if possible, the key idea or words should be spelt while the details should be supplied by you during the talk. Writing all that you are going to say on the slide and reading it off the screen is a strict no-no.

(2) The sentence “Lots of interesting probelms are to be solved here” is not a good idea; the correct way is to show/explain the problems and indicate how they are yet to be solved or solved satisfactorily.

(3) Saying “this is not economical” is not a good idea; give an order of magnitude calculation of the cost with the relevant statistics to show why it is not economical.

(4) Maintain consistency across slides; for example, across different slides, mention your variables in the same order. Make your schematics and figures align along the same way. Showing the schematic with A to the left of B, while, the micrograph shows A to the right of B is bad enough; showing A on top of B (that is, making a longitudinal section transverse in a later slide) is certainly not a good idea.

(5) Know your audience, and pitch the introduction to the audience. For example, in a conference on the applications of Ti-based alloys, you do not want to convince your audience about the superiority of Ti-based alloys. But, if you really want to put in a slide, make it technical; give data and statistics to make your point. Simply listing things like “Good specific strength — Good formability — Cheap” is certainly not a good idea — Cheap compared to what? Good specific strength compared to what? How much?

(6) Listing “the experimental procedures used in this study” is again not a good idea (unless you have a specific reason for doing so — for example, you use a well known experimental technique for a purpose for which it is not usually used, or you have two different techniques which complement each other). Thus, if you list the experimental techniques, you might also want to say why you are listing them. If your list reads “XRD for crystal structure determination, SEM for microstructural study, DSC for tracking the glass transition” etc, you don’t need to list them.

(7) Conclusion slide should be short and concise; embellishing it with lots of subtle points robs the presentation of its power. Here again, instead of lengthly explanations, short sentences are what are effective. In a 15 or 20 minute talk for example, if you have more than 3 conclusions, your talk needs pruning. And, the only slide that should follow the conclusion slide is acknowledgements. Having three slides after the conclusion to talk about the most recent, intersting stuff that you just obtained in your laboratory is as jarring as listening to a loud, mindless advertisement jingle immediately following a concert of MS or Mallikarjun Mansur!

(8) Review talks which are too broad are, most of the times, not a good idea. However, if you happen to give one, play it to your strengths. At least some fraction of the work that you present should have originated from you or your group. While giving such talks, listing all that has been done without your own take on the information is again not a good idea. The attitude should be: is there something that emerges when we put all these information together, which has not been spelt out explicitly by anoybody.

(9) While making presentations, telling a story helps. It is spectacular if you can lead the audience to expect some trend, and then show and convince them it does not happen that way. On top, if you can also explan/show why the expected trend is not observed, the quality of the talk gets elevated to the next level. Such “Aha” moments are the ones that truly communicate the joy of research. However, the story format works fine even if all the trends are as expected, as long as your narration is cogent.

(10) Find a theme for your topic and repeat it; tell what you are going to tell, tell, and then tell what you have told.

(11) This is something that everybody assumes to be common knowledge, which, beginners usually miss out. Every diagram, data, result, art work, micrograph, and table in your talk, if it is not yours, should be credited to the source. This holds even to those schematics which you make based on somebody else’s. If there is no credit, people automatically assume that that is your result. I have known more than one embarassing instant where a nice movie or micrograph presented in the talk happened to be not that of the speaker which led to some real unpleasant feelings at the end of an otherwise good presentation. And, one line at the bottom, crediting the source would have saved them from such a fate.

This place is as good as any for me to stop. Go forth, give your talks. Put in a bit of effort; it always shows. And, if you have any comments/suggestions, please feel free to jot it down here!

8 Responses to “Some thoughts on making presentations!”

  1. HowTo: prepare PPT presentations « Entertaining Research Says:

    […] Here are some of my pointers on making presentations; here is Abi with some of his own. […]

  2. chaplainandrews Says:

    In the Army everything we do is on PowerPoint. It is how we comunicate, but I have seen some terrible slides. My pet peeves are the slides that have several paragraphs of text–who reads those anyway? The others are the ones that have this huge diagram with lines going every where to explain something. They are absolutely crazy–it is sick that people can even make sense of these.

  3. Guru Says:

    Dear ChaplainAndrews,

    Thanks for your comments; the first peeve of yours is the first in my listing too; however, I missed the one about diagrams since in our field we hardly get complicated diagrams to explain stuff. May be I will add them to my list when I make one next time.


  4. nishugoyal Says:

    nice Article!..
    btw do u really insist on being repetitive?

  5. Guru Says:

    Dear Nishu,

    Thanks for stopping by and the comments.

    There are no absolute rules. Good speakers sometimes break almost all the rules I have listed above, but still manage to mesmerise the audience. However, for beginners it might be a good idea to consciously cultivate some of these (so that they can be broken later, with experience).

    So, with that caveat, I do think that repetition is good; by repetition, I do not mean saying the same thing, but, saying the same thing in many different fashions so that at the end of the talk, your take-home message is clear. Such stylised repetition is difficult but is not very hard to achieve.

  6. Jayan Says:

    Some points I thought could be discussed …

    1. When it is to a small and specific audience, make it two- way communication. However, on a large audience, it causes chaos.
    2. Exhibit confidence on what you present. If there are more scholarly people in the audience, smartly use them to your advantage.
    3. Your body language and postures are very important. They too, communicate.
    4. Never have a slide which is not meant to be there. I get annoyed , personally, when some one tells me ,” let me skip few slides, they are not important”. Why is it there in the first place.

  7. Guru Says:

    Dear Jayan,

    Thanks for the tips; when I rewrite the stuff, I will be sure to include them to my list.

  8. nishugoyal Says:

    i was most impressed by a presentation made by a person person from Lehman bros. He started with a joke. gave a brief review of presentation and made one of the most boring topics worth hearing .

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