Five neat presentation tricks

Last night I ran a workshop on ‘writing and presenting at conferences’ as part of the ‘On Track’ program I run at RMIT university. During the session I asked the group to tell me the worst things they had ever seen in presentations.

It was a big bad list: reading from slides, no eye contact, visible nervousness, inability to stick to time and so on and on. Then I asked them to tell me some of the innovative and interesting presentation techniques they had seen, or used themselves. Four of these really stood out, so I thought I would share them with you today and add a 5th of my own.

1. Text me the questions

One of the students told us about a presenter who started her talk by telling people to turn on their mobile phones. The presenter’s mobile number was on every slide so that people could text her questions as they occurred throughout the talk.

As Julie noted in the previous  post, some people at conferences tend to ask questions which are not really questions, but thinly disguised rants. This texting idea is brilliant; besides making them pay to ask a question, a text message enforces brevity! Of course, nominating a hashtag in twitter could act in the same way – if they can’t say it in 140 characters it probably isn’t a question is it?

2. The last slide is the most important piece of screen real estate

The group noted that the last slide stays on the screen for longer than the rest of the presentation. One person pointed out this is an excellent opportunity to guide the discussion by leaving a question or provocative remark hanging in the air.

Another noted that it was a perfect place to put your name and contact details so that people in the audience can take a note of it on the spot. I thought there was sound logic in this; it can be difficult to remember who said what after you have seen 50 or so presentations. It’s not always easy to get contact details from the program and not everyone’s name is easy to Google – even if you happen to remember it.

3. Have some extra time planned

One student told us how there will always be a member of the audience who wants to challenge him on the details of his data or analysis. He always includes a slide or two which are only for question time and shows them if he is asked about the details. I’m sure it makes him come across as quite the organised professional – and silences the nit pickers.

4. Slide tickertape

We talked a little about organising a presentation and about the importance of ‘saying what you are going to say’ before you say it. A student told us about a ‘ticker tape’ method – indicating at the bottom of each slide which bit the speaker was talking about. Titles like ‘background’, ‘method’ and ‘results’ can be displayed in different colours along with the rest of the information. If the audience’s attention wanders briefly they can quickly reorient themselves.

5. Think beyond words and images…

In our workshop we talked about the impossibility of getting across a whole 10,000 word paper to the audience in 20 minutes or so. We discussed ways of organising the material so it is interesting, rather than comprehensive.

The presentation which stands out as the most interesting for me was one I saw years ago by Barbara Bolt. She’s an artist and was talking about ‘working hot’ and something about Kant. Ok – I don’t remember the exact details of what she was saying, but I do remember the presentation because as the audience came into the room she had the lights low and was playing loud techno music. It instantly created a mood which was unexpected and the perfect analog to the point she was trying to make about being ‘in the moment’ while painting. It was effective because she gave us a visceral cue about the feeling she was talking about – rather than trying to explain a difficult concept purely in words.

That’s the top five for this week. I would love it if people wrote in with more presentation techniques because they are a bit like the little black dress – you can never have enough of them!

16 thoughts on “Five neat presentation tricks

  1. Analogies. I tend to liken my research to standing on one of those balance boards – you are trying to stay upright but every action from a comittee has an equal and opposite reaction to the quality of your research.
    I find I stay awake easier if the talk is engaging – for me pictures are a big one.

  2. Great to hear Barb getting some positive words. She’s good value and someone who challenged many of my ideas in the MA program- I’m a better thinker for her influence.

  3. I just found a free piece of software called Prezi – which is a great, and much more creative alternative to PowerPoint. You create your presentation online and can then download it to be played on any PC/Mac without software or web access.

    They have some great examples of creative presentations on there so I’m going to give it a go!

  4. Sound can be powerful. I used voiced extracts from student blogs in my presentation at QPR2008. Just the key sentence on the screen and about 30secs of voice. Worked really well. And at HERDSA one presenter used several wordclouds made from her (textual) data to show the big picture from a dense and complex paper.

  5. Also: Texting questions can be overwhelming to the speaker – I’ve seen it happen in a bad way (ascilite 2008) as the speaker tried to deal with the questions as he went along. And twitter on the screen behind the speaker can have pitfalls too.

  6. I should clarify that the extracts were voiced by ‘actors’ – mostly grad students who have nothing to do with my project from the office down the corridor, half the uni away from the faculties where my participants were enrolled. The material they were presented with to read was just a paragraph with no ID attached. It never occurred to me or to my sups to talk to Ethics Committee about it. Hmmm.

  7. Here’s one more tip (discovered today!). When presenting with your own laptop, disable networking (esp. the wireless kill switch!), to prevent instant messages appearing on the projector screen during your presentation!

  8. I love the ‘text a question’ idea. Obviously it would take some practice to make it work smoothly and would require a relaxed, confident speaker, however it’s a great idea to squash the rants and encourage shy members of the audience to participate. Good one.

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