All too often you find yourself in a scientific presentation cringing at the state of the slides being projected into your eyeholes. Whether it’s thirty slides for a ten-minute talk, the essay the presenter is reading aloud to you, or the dreaded illegible yellow font, presentation sins are everywhere. But it doesn’t have to be this. You can be better. You can break the trend. We have the knowledge. Your presentation doesn’t have to suck. You just have to follow some simple rules.

1. Tell a story

Have a definite beginning, middle, and end, and keep to it. Don’t just rattle through the experiments you’ve done over the past few months and bombard your audience with all of your data: tell them a story – make and keep them interested.

  • What’s the question or problem you’re addressing?
  • Why should anyone care?
  • What did you do to answer that question?
  • Were there problems you had to overcome? How did you manage that? (People love a tale of conquered adversity.)
  • Got data? Awesome! What are the main findings?
  • And what did you conclude from this amazing work? Wrap it up in one slide.
  • If you’ve thought about what research comes next, leave people with a taster of what you have planned. They’ll be excited by the prospect of a sequel – people love sequels.

2. Keep it minimal

Avoid having a ton of text on your slides. You’ll just end up reading it out loud and the audience won’t be listening to you because they’ll be – rather grudgingly – reading the essay you have on the slide. Instead, have a title, a few supporting bullets points if necessary, and a visual where appropriate.

Talk about what’s on the slide: explain graphs, images, and diagrams. Walk people through your thinking. This will keep them engaged and actively listening to you.

3. Make it pretty

This isn’t superficial: it matters. If your font size changes on every slide, your titles are in a new position every time you hit ‘next’, or your images are blurry, people will be distracted.

An aesthetically pleasing, neat, and well-formatted (ie consistent!) presentation will help to keep people focused on you and what you’re saying. The layout of a pretty presentation will go unnoticed, but the layout of an ugly presentation is often all that people will notice.

4. Have a point

This ties in with my first rule about telling a story, but it’s worth reiterating. What’s the point of your presentation? Are you talking about one new finding? Summing up your last six months of work? Presenting a problem that you hope to troubleshoot? Whatever it is, make it the focus of your presentation; don’t try to do everything at once.

You want to leave people with a clear take-home message. You don’t want them coming out, scratching their heads, wondering what the last thirty minutes were about.

5. Be a human

Presentations can be a daunting affair, but if you relax and learn to present with a little bit of personality, maybe even some humor where possible, you’ll find that it goes a lot smoother. Take your time. Breathe. Think about the points you’re making. Talk to your audience like you would to a friend in the office or the lab. There’s no need to plow through to talk like a robot reading a script.

Get excited by your results. Get exasperated by your experimental failures. A little bit of empathy goes a long way.

 

Got all that? Okay, here’s a summary checklist just in case:

  • Tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end – keep people engaged
  • Only include essential info on your slides
  • Make your presentation pretty and consistent
  • Address one main point
  • Be a human – be a friendly human

 

There you go: a complete guide to ensuring your presentation doesn’t suck.