Clear presentation initiative – spice up your talk

Step one in creating a good presentation is to spice up your talk. I will present here several methods you can use to make a spicy talk.

The beginning of each presentation should start with a good long consideration about who your audience is, and what it is they want to hear. Write up a few thoughts as you go along, so you don’t forget and feel silly for forgetting it afterwards. This is important because you do not want to offend your audience. You can offend by, for example, explaining to an audience of SAXS experts just how SAXS works. On the other scale, you could offend your audience by greatly overestimating their knowledge and starting off into this wildly specialised talk. It is important here that you consider your general audience level, and not the level of the select few (like your boss, or that one scientist you want to impress) who know what your topic is about.

Knowing the level of your audience (and ask the organiser if you don’t know), is step one. With that knowledge you can figure out what it is you want to tell them. What is it that you know, that they would be interested in? Write this down in keywords, because now you can take it one step further: cutting down on topics.

While you have probably done an enormous amount of work covering a range of issues, your audience wants to hear a coherent story. Something going from A to B. So pick the most important thing you want to talk about and start removing everything that is furthest away from that topic. What you want to end up with is perhaps 1 topic per 20 minutes you have available. Steve Job’s keynotes, for example, have no more than three (and “one more thing” occasionally), even though he has tons more topics to present about.

So you have your topic, now you make a narrative. Starting from the knowledge level of the audience, draw a path to your topic, focusing on and introducing the bits that are interesting to your audience. Think about what you will introduce. It is no use introducing something which is interesting by itself but will not be discussed later on. If you are not investigating crystals, don’t start explaining crystallography. What you need to introduce, introduce it well and don’t gloss over it. Take the time for the introduction as this is the point where you may easily lose your audience. Also don’t forget that you need to explain to your audience why you are doing this, i.e. why should the audience pay attention to anything you say?

Then you start talking about the topic you have chosen. You know how to do that, because you are enthusiastic about your topic and you know what you are talking about. Make sure, however, that your narrative has a clear line and that at no point the audience needs to think “but why on earth is he explaining this now when he was doing that completely different thing just a second ago?”.

Winding down your talk is the easiest. Recap in a single line what you have just told them and summarise shortly. If you had a key point, now is the time to tell that.

Now that you have your talk outlined, your presentation preparation can start. You now know what you are going to talk about, and what you are going to introduce in order to get your audience to understand and be fascinated about your topic.

Now you need to focus on storytelling. The audience wants to hear a story and could care less about the finicky details (equations, derivations and so on). To make a story interesting you tell them a little about your experiences, i.e. what your view is on the matter. The really good stories start with a little excerpt that explains how you got “sucked in” by what you are going to present, how you got to be interested in it. We are and always have been captivated by stories and we would like to be entertained by those telling the stories.

Jokes are good too. Start with a joke, e.g. ridicule yourself (and not your audience!). Look into the eyes of the audience as you make the joke so they know you’re on the level. Practice your joke and make sure they are funny (which is quite tricky), f.ex. by testing them on a colleague or two. Again, even in science, it’s all about entertainment.

One more thing that entertains is demonstrations. Consider breaking the monotony of your talk with a demonstration. Show them something, give them a show. Some TED talks had people bringing out real human brains, for example. Or a demonstration on how to measure the speed of sound using nothing but an oscilloscope, a microphone and a ruler. Hand things around so the audience keeps lively and awake.

So, to summarise:

  • Start by thinking about who your audience is and understanding what it is that they want to know.
  • Choose your topic carefully by honing down that single thing you want to tell them from a list of possible topics.
  • Set up your introduction by taking the time to explain what the audience needs to know to understand your topic (nothing more!).
  • Set up your main topic and conclusions. By this time your audience should be captivated by your introduction, and since you know how to talk about your main topic, you should be fine here
  • Spice up your talk with stories, jokes and demonstrations. Entertain your audience!

That’s it! Next time I’ll be talking a bit about how to present the talk you have just prepared.


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