By Gordon Rugg
Sooner or later, most students end up having to give a presentation. Most students hate giving presentations, with good reason.
The usual process goes something like this. Well before the date for the presentations, there is a lecture on how to do presentations. This lecture is usually worthy and well meaning, and consists largely of things that you knew already, plus advice like Make the presentation interesting, without telling you just how to do that. The lecture is usually accompanied by links to some of the many resources for doing presentations.
A lot of those resources are excellent in what they cover. However, they’re usually not so great in terms of what they don’t cover, whether because of space and time, or because they assume you already know it, or whatever.
In this article, I’m going to look at those absences. I’ll start with the big picture, then look at how to handle structure and content, and end with the practical stuff that makes the difference between doing it well and doing it not so well. Before I do that, here’s a picture of some hats.
The big picture: Guiding principles
Presentations are like hats, like cabinets, and like show and tell sessions at school.
Hats take very different forms depending on their purpose. If you want to look dashingly elegant in an upmarket beach resort, you might wear a jaunty Panama hat, like the one I keep on the back of my door in case I ever feel the need to look dashingly elegant in an upmarket beach resort. If you want to inspect something on an industrial site, you’ll need to wear something like the hard hat that I keep on the phrenology bust next to my door. And if you ever need to pacify the Dacians for the emperor Trajan, you’ll need a helmet like the one I keep on my filing cabinet, just in case the day comes…
With talks and presentations, some are intended to be primarily entertaining rather than functional, like fashionable hats. Others are intended to be primarily for the transfer of factual information; for example, briefings, which are the equivalent of the hard hat. Others again are intended to do both; for example, if you’re giving a presentation as part of a job interview, where you need to show that you can both convey information and be interesting, just as a Roman helmet is intended to be intensely practical, and also to convey some heavy-duty signals about what sort of person is wearing it. (Okay, so maybe that analogy got a bit thin by the end, but it should make the point.)
Many of the guidelines on giving presentations don’t say much about this. They’ll almost certainly tell you that you need to know who your audience will be, and to tailor the talk for them, but they’re less likely to tell you what your audience’s expectations will be. Some audiences will want lots of flashy graphics; other audiences will hate flashy graphics. It’s very similar to the way that most academic writing is intentionally unemotional and unexciting on the surface.
So, if you don’t know what your audience will consider good or bad, then it’s wise to find out. A metaphorical cup of coffee (i.e. off the record informal chat) with a friendly and knowledgeable member of staff can make a huge difference here. It’s no accident that Marian Petre and I used an image of a cup of coffee on the front cover of our book about the unwritten rules of PhD research; that cup of coffee is often the most useful few minutes of your professional life.
Cabinet making is another valuable guiding principle. Back in the past, if you were an apprentice cabinet maker wanting to become a proper professional cabinet maker, you produced a piece of work to show that you had mastered the relevant skills; literally your “master piece”. If you had any sense at all, that cabinet would contain evidence of every skill you had ever learned.
It’s the same with presentations. You need to show your excellence throughout.
One simple but efficient way of doing this is to apply the highlighter test to every slide. You highlight everything on the slide that could not have been produced by anyone on the street who has PowerPoint and an Internet connection. Clip art, clichés, jokes, etc don’t get highlighter; evidence of skill, knowledge, and experience do get highlighter. The more highlighter, the better. It’s very similar to concepts in academic writing, such as adding visible indicators of quality.
You also need to apply this test to the group members during a group presentation; how will you signal competence and professionalism via how you look, how you behave while another member is speaking, etc? If you have a plan, any plan, then you’ll look a lot more professional than if you haven’t thought this through.
This brings us on to the next topic, which is about balancing images, text and content.
Show and tell is a useful guiding principle because your presentation will consist of showing the audience things and telling them things. The problem is showing them what you want to show, rather than unintentionally showing yourself badly.
A good guiding principle for showing and telling is that if one is boring, you need to make the other interesting. If what you’re showing them is boring, such as the typical title slide, then tell them something interesting while they’re seeing it; if what you’re telling them is boring, show them something interesting.
Remember that “interesting” means “interesting to this particular audience” rather than “stock photo showing something exotic”. An audience of technical specialists might find it very interesting indeed that your data formed a bimodal distribution; a different audience might find that result boring beyond belief.
Structure and content
Your talk needs to be structured, in several different ways:
- Topping and tailing
- Primacy, peak and recency
Within these overall structures, there are other smaller-scale structures that you can include, such as the aha effect.
Topping and tailing is a classic structure for a talk. First, you tell the audience what you’re going to say (the top). Then, you say it. Then you tell them what you’ve just said (the tail). It’s a classic for good reasons. The top part tells the audience what to expect; the tail part gives them a summary, in case they got lost in the detail in the middle.
Primacy, peak and recency effects are closely related, but are not the same as topping and tailing. They are important for leaving the audience with the type of impressions and memories that you want.
Primacy effects are in essence first impressions; recency effects are last impressions; peak effects are the most striking things in the middle. An important point from this structure is that you’re deliberately not aiming to make all of the talk equally striking; instead, you’re making about three parts of it particularly striking. You don’t have much choice about primacy and recency, since by definition they always come at the start and end respectively, but you do have a choice about what to use as your peak effect (or effects, if you choose to have more than one).
Your primacy and recency effects won’t only come from the content of your talk; they’ll also come from how you look and act while you’re waiting for the talk to start, and when you’re ending it. You need to look and act professional at these points; it’s worth looking at talks online, and taking note of how the speakers behave while they’re being introduced, etc.
Plot is also important; if your talk has a plot, then it’s much easier for the audience to keep track, to stay interested, and to remember you and the talk afterwards.
A simple but effective plot is the fairy tale. This starts with a problem (the dragon laying waste the land, in the fairy tale) and then describes how the obvious approaches have failed to fix it (the background story in your talk). It then describes the magic solution (the method you applied) and the results during the encounter with the problem (your results) followed by the ending where you get half the kingdom, or you work out what to do next, or whatever.
The aha effect is one way of putting in smaller-scale structures in your talk. The banner picture of the hats near the start of this article is an example. It initially looks unrelated to the topic, but then the readers/audience realise why it’s relevant, and have the “aha” moment when it all makes sense.
This can also be an effective way of introducing some interest into parts of a talk that would otherwise be dull, such as your title slide. The audience won’t be interested or impressed either by your name or by stock images or clip art. They will be interested by an intriguing title, or by an intriguing image, and will react well if the title or image suddenly makes sense a slide or two later.
Hardware breaks, software crashes, and people let you down, usually at the worst possible moments. You can’t completely prevent practical problems, but you can prepare for them in ways that let you handle them, or in a worst case, to impress the audience by how prepared you were.
I’ll focus on three key principles:
- Reconnaissance and rehearsal
- Fallback, and second fallback
- Making sure everything has crossed the gulf of instantiation in your planning
Reconnaissance and rehearsal
Every room is different, usually in a way so weird that you don’t believe it. There’s usually some odd practical feature that has serious implications for how you’re planning to give the presentation. So, if you possibly can, do a reconnaissance of the room well before you give the talk, so that in a worst case you can re-plan the talk to fit with the constraints of the room.
It’s also highly advisable to rehearse your talk before you give it, even if the rehearsal is to an empty room. This will help you work out your timing, so that you can give the talk within the target time at a natural pace. If possible, get someone to act as your audience, preferably sitting in the worst seat available (usually at the back, in a corner) in a room about the same size as the one where you’ll be presenting. If they can hear you and read your slides from there, then you’ve got those parts right.
Fallback, and second fallback
You need a fallback plan in case the technology fails. If you’re using lots of advanced features, then there’s a good chance that one of them will fail to work, even though it worked fine when you tested it five minutes previously. One simple fallback plan is to have a backup version that uses less advanced features. Another simple fallback plan is to prepare what you’ll say if that feature doesn’t work.
Sometimes the technology doesn’t work at all. Many speakers would give up at this point, and few people would blame them. However, if you have a good story to tell, you can often just tell it in words, without needing slides. Sometimes, you can use media other than slides to illustrate your point vividly and memorably (though indoor boomerangs, for instance, would be a bad choice of media, just speaking hypothetically…)
Crossing the gulf of instantiation
A key point that brings together many of the concepts above is the gulf of instantiation. This is the space between an abstract concept (e.g. “The other group members will stand near the person leading the presentation”) and physical reality (e.g. “I’ll stand here and you’ll stand there”).
Rehearsals bring this point home forcefully. They force you to think through issues like whether the group members will stand in a line, or in a huddle, and where each person will stand when you swap from one group member presenting to a different group member presenting. They force you to think through issues like which button you have to press to make the next slide appear.
So, that’s a swift overview of presentations. It won’t make you a legendary public speaker, but it should help you do a competent job.
If you’re interested in some of the concepts above, you might find the links below useful.
Primacy, peak and recency effects are well established in psychology, but not widely known elsewhere. There are some fascinating and counter-intuitive research findings into these effects, such as this classic example by Redelmeier and Kahneman.
For structuring form and content in your writing, and for showing excellence, the links below should give you a useful start.
There’s plenty more about writing elsewhere on this blog.
For the aha effect, the links below discuss how this phenomenon works.
Notes and links
You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.
There’s more about content analysis in my book with Marian Petre on research methods:
Rugg & Petre, A Gentle Guide to Research Methods:
There’s more about the theory behind this article in my book Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese.
You might also find our website useful: https://www.hydeandrugg.com/