Improve Your Next Presentation: Tips on Effective Presentation Design and Delivery

Many readers browsing this article have communicated effectively for years, while others may be seeking successful tips here on how to make their next presentation an outstanding performance. Whichever the case, please bear in mind that this article is not intended to “teach” how one becomes a great presenter but rather to provide helpful tips on presentation design and delivery, hoping that some of them will trigger old knowledge and perhaps provide a few new ideas.

A focused and understandable communication of ideas directly reflects upon one’s choice of appropriate visual aids that maximize impact and make a striking difference in the strength and clarity of the presentation. While most people appear comfortable standing in front of an audience, an exciting and effective presentation entails a thorough organization of thoughts, slides, and visual aids carefully prepared ahead of time. Regardless of its technical content or the field of expertise, there are a few simple steps that should be followed when preparing a successful presentation.

Plan Ahead

Before putting together your presentation, it is most appropriate to inquire about the size and composition of the audience, what they expect to achieve by attending your presentation, and how much time you have been allotted. These details will help you identify the key messages and focus your presentation to cater to the audience. One common instinct to overcome is squeezing all the work done during a four-year degree into that one presentation. Nothing is more frustrating than a speaker switching through slides beyond the allotted time, while the audience is packing up and rushing for the coffee break. Remember, less is more—don’t overwhelm your audience! Think “subtract”—not “add!”

Structure Your Presentation: Tell’em What You Are Gonna Tell’em → Tell ’em → Tell’em What You’ve Told’em!

Think about the central message—what is it that you want to say? What key message is your audience to take home? Once you have decided on the message you want to convey, organize your ideas logically to avoid confusion. Imagine telling a story to a large audience who may not be very familiar your work but want to know more about it. Catch their interest and attention from the start—avoid “filler” and technical jargon. Use an outline slide to build a road map of your presentation—just don’t make it a dull (and uninformative) “Intro, Methods, Results, and Conclusion” sequence.

Devote the first few minutes to the introduction of the topic and touch on the background information required to set the stage for what you will be discussing. Also try to avoid cliché statements such as “Disease X is the number one killer in …” the audience most likely knows it.

Think transition: lead the audience to the hypothesis and objectives for your research. Wrap up the introduction by pointing out outstanding issues regarding the topic and how your work will address them without putting down the work performed by other researchers (who may well be sitting in the audience).

Develop the ideas you outlined in your introduction in the main body of your presentation. Avoid unnecessary text and use good visual aids to convey your message, and help the audience understand and embrace your new findings.

Break the monotony by choosing title slides that emphasize your work, and aim to order your material in a nontraditional fashion to keep the audience interested. To maintain your own interest in the topic and deliver a fresh and exciting seminar, create a few new slides and include some new material in each presentation—don’t just redeliver previous presentations.

Your audience will take home no more than five key points. Use the rule of fives: strategically choose five key concepts that best describe your work, keeping in mind your summary slide to help you identify your key messages, and emphasize them throughout your presentation. If the audience can list the five key concepts that you have stressed, then you were successful. Also, since most of us learn best by examples, use analogies to facilitate the understanding of difficult concepts and help eliminate confusion.

Signal the beginning of the summary and conclusion, but don’t summarize too soon. You don’t want the audience to leave the room and miss the punch line. Summarize your data, comment on the significance of your findings, and always put your work back into the context of the challenges you outlined in the beginning. Finally, reiterate the main points in the context of a recommendation for future work.

Slide Design: Great Visuals Make Great Slides

Using PowerPoint is not necessarily a bad thing, just as long as you stay away from the PowerPoint defaults and use your imagination and creativity. Strive for good contrast. Remember, if you can’t see it, neither can the audience. As a rule of thumb, yellow and white text on a dark blue background always provides a sharp contrast, is easy to read, and is relatively comfortable for most eyes. And once you select a general look, color scheme, fonts, etc., stick to it.

Aim for as little text on slides as possible, and try to have as few text-only slides in your presentation as possible. Avoid excessive use of bullet points, list ideas and not full sentences, and limit yourself to three to five main bullet points per slide. Ensure that the font is large enough for it to be legible from the back of the room (any font size between 24 and 36 point is appropriate in most cases), and use Sans Serif fonts, which are easier on the eyes (e.g., don’t use Times New Roman—it is more appropriate for written documents than slides).

Remember, the audience is not there to read but to listen to what you say and connect it to what they see on the slides. You do the talking and let your slides do the visuals—together your message will come across.

Language Tools

The words you select will dramatically impact the reactions from your audience with regards to both your work and your effectiveness as a presenter. Use a thesaurus to find words with more impact and prevent excessive use of the same words. Bring in a breath of fresh air every time you reiterate a similar idea.

Use “power” and “command” words to get people’s attention and show your audience your confidence and competence. Address your audience in the second person, using the powerful word “you”—they will react much better when you address them directly, and you will make them feel engaged in the conversation.

Practice Makes Perfect

Don’t be fooled by those who claim to have just stepped up to the podium and given a presentation they had put together at a moment’s notice. No matter how rushed you are, make time for at least a few practice runs. The effects of practice will be apparent and will reflect well upon both your knowledge of the science and your communication skills.

Run through your presentation a few times to get an idea of how it flows, then seek external feedback to make sure you are on the right track. Many practice runs are needed: ten is about right, and although it may be perceived as a long time commitment, it really is worth it and will pay dividends on the understanding of your presentation.

While rehearsing is highly recommended, committing the presentation to memory and performing it by heart is definitely not. You are there to present, not to recite. Bear in mind also that rehearsals should involve using the same visual tools you would during your actual delivery.

On the Day of Your Presentation

Check out the venue and make sure that all of the equipment you need is available and that you know how to use it. Avoid having equipment delivered 10 min before your talk as you just don’t have time to get familiar with it.

Movies and clips are very commonly used and do make great visual aids, BUT, if you do show movies, make sure they play appropriately on the same system you will be using during your presentation. Don’t be afraid to have some still shots just in case you can’t show the clips—it will save you having to display a blank screen.

While some say that you can never overdress for a presentation, others will disagree, but everyone agrees that you should never be underdressed. It shows respect toward your audience to dress up, and often your attire may increase your credentials and catch the attention and interest of the audience.

Delivery

One of the most important aspects of your presentation is the actual delivery and how you project yourself in front of your audience. Relax and be confident—everyone responds well to a confident-looking individual. Screen the audience at all times and keep them engaged by maintaining eye contact. Be aware of the body language and avoid distracting gestures and mannerisms. Don’t block the screen, and never turn your back to the audience.

Be enthusiastic! Absolutely nothing else will help your presentation more than communicating your passion and confidence and showing enthusiasm and excitement about your work. The audience will recognize your belief and enthusiasm, and it will add credibility to your message.

Be careful when using humor. It really depends on the presenter, but, if you use respectful humor and drop in humor where it fits, it can be a good way to connect with your audience. Small amounts of humor and an irreverent comment from time to time can lighten up a presentation and keep your audience engaged—just don’t overdo it.

Project your voice clearly, and modulate your voice to highlight certain key messages. Pace yourself, but don’t forget to vary the pace and tone of your voice to enhance meaning, and pause for a moment when you want to allow the audience to grasp a difficult concept. As a general rule, every slide deserves at least 15 s, while none should run more than 2 min. If you find yourself spending several minutes on a slide, break it up. And remember to smoothly transition from one slide to another—lead the discussion into the next slide as you wrap up your current slide.

Handling Questions

Your presentation is not complete when your slideshow has come to an end; stay tuned for question time, interact with the audience, and show them your knowledge of the topic. After all, anyone can give a good talk provided sufficient practice.

If a question is asked during your presentation and it is aimed at clearing the ambiguity, answer it immediately. However, feel free to postpone questions aimed at specific problems until the end if the answer will disrupt the flow of your story.

Always wait for the inquisitor to finish asking his or her question before you begin your answer, and provide a succinct answer to the question without rambling into irrelevant topics. Out of respect for the rest of your audience, avoid prolonged discussions with one person and especially avoid arguments.

If you can’t answer a question, admit that you don’t have the answer, but offer to research the answer and follow up, suggest readings, or even ask for suggestions from the audience.

When You’re Done

Thank your audience, your hosts, and collaborators. Make materials available so that the audience can go and tell their colleagues and friends what they’ve missed, and, most importantly, make yourself available by providing your contact information. Finally, if appropriate, try to get some feedback—find out what they thought of you and your presentation, what they learned, what they were hoping to learn but didn’t, and what you should do to improve the presentation and your communication skills. Treat every presentation as a learning experience, and don’t forget that there is no perfect presentation.

Best of luck with the design and delivery of your next presentation. If you have any further questions or if you require additional information, feel free to contact us any time: Christopher J. James (C.James@warwick.ac.uk) and Cristian A. Linte (clinte@mail.rit.edu).