Thursday 3 January 2019

Tips for Student Presentations

[Health warning: personal preferences may differ between researchers!]

One of the key skills being developed in an undergraduate or graduate degree is the ability to communicate complex ideas in a succinct and accessible way.  This is tested several times during the Physics degree course here at Leicester, and common mistakes can lead to lost marks.  Here's a list of my own personal preferences for presentations, in case they're of use to the wider community.

  • Three Ts:  Tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you’ve told them.  Repetition of key points helps to reinforce them.  You’re telling a story, so make sure there are points in your slides to introduce, review, and summarise.
  • Show some enthusiasm:  If you don't, who else will?  I still get nervous before talks, but I try to channel this nervous energy into the talk, and I think it works.  Remember you're telling a story, and that even an audience of physicists would like to be entertained.  I'm not talking about becoming a stand-up comedian, but varying your voice and engaging your audience will all help you to be memorable.
  • Balance text and figures:  The audience will always be drawn towards your graphics, so these should dominate the slide with only bullet-points of text for key points.  Simple animations (e.g., building up a complex graphic with multiple slides) can often be really helpful.
  • Central Theme:  Use the first or second slide to define a central question or thesis that your presentation will address, and keep referring back to this in each Section and in the Conclusion.  That way, the reader will understand how each particular section fits into the wider presentation.
  • Numbered Sections and Footers:  Use numbered sections and subsections, as you would in a report, and make sure these numbers are prominent in slide headings/footers.  That way the audience knows where you are in the presentation, even if (ahem) they've just had 40 winks...  Also, use slide numbers with a [1/N] format, so the audience knows how long they need to sustain their attention...
  • Active Titles:  Use the slide title to drive home a message - this could be phrased as a question that you answer as you describe the slide; or it could be the key conclusion of that particular slide.  It helps the audience understand what you're trying to say.
  • Summarise sections:  At the end of a section, before moving on, try to include a few sentences/statements to say where we are in the presentation – what is the take-home message of the previous section, and what are we going to look at next?  This helps to avoid abrupt transitions between sections.
  • Referencing:  Figures and ideas should have references to the source (Author et al., yyyy) or a web URL - often DOIs (digital object identifiers) are helpful here.  You can include a slide with your references if the document is going to be read by people later on, but NEVER EVER end on this slide.
  • Keep to the point:  Don’t be tempted to go off topic or to introduce information that isn’t relevant to the central theme of the project – this can just lead to confusion and dilutes your take-home messages, and can mean that you run over your allotted time.
  • Practise makes perfect:  Time keeping is an essential skill - too short and you leave the audience wondering whether you're really cut out for presenting, too long and you offend the people coming after you.  And you really do want to leave time for questions at the end.  Practise out loud, preferably with an audience to give you some friendly critiques.
  • End on your Summary/Conclusions:  Don't ever fall into the trap of having the last slide say "Any Questions", or "Thanks", or "References".  Your last slide should contain a bulleted list of conclusions as a summary of what you've told them (preferably with an eye-catching graphic).  This should stay on the screen behind you as you answer questions.  
  • Don't be tempted to use fancy slide transitions:  Fade in and fade out is fine, but if I see the slide scrunch into a ball and bounce away, it's just distracting....

Oh, and Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society has an excellent guide to conference presentations here: