How to give a good presentation


 

These ideas were written up whilst listening to a particularly boring talk at an international conference. I wasn't paying attention because the talk was bad, and I have by now forgotten what the person was trying to say. It's debatable whether that is my fault or the speaker's, but it is clear that this would be unimportant if the talk was decent in the first place.

Most of the rules presented below are just simple common sense. Many only refer to how you write your slides, and can be safely forgotten whilst you're giving your talk. As with a lot of rules, you will break several of them from time to time. But relax! Things don't have to be perfect, just interesting and reasonably clear. If you enjoy giving a talk, then almost your audience should enjoy it with you. Good luck!

Making the slides

Powerpoint

Microsoft Powerpoint is a reliable bet for making the slides for a presentation. In fact, the Office 2000 version is probably the best program available only for Windows. Microsoft Word should not be used.

I have recently experimented with LaTeX for writing presentations (using the beamer class). The results can be very good, but a familiarity with the LaTeX document preparation package is vital.

Printed overhead projector slides are just-about acceptable if you need to use them, and as a backup, but need lots of printer ink and can be more difficult to manage than a data projector. I've also seen people trip over whist walking to the stage, scattering OHP slides over a good part of the audience and so losing the order they were originally in. I've also known one person arrive without having put them in order, and so spending a while looking through the stack each time he needed a new one.

One slide means no more than ten lines

No slide should have too much writing on it. If it has, this will cause two problems. Firstly, people will read the slide instead of listening to you, and get bored. Secondly, more lines means smaller font, so some people may not be able to read what you've written.

On the other hand, slides with too little information are also problematic because they cause the talk to become bitty and (sometimes) the speaker to forget what they're trying to say. The best compromise is to have a maximum of 10 lines per slide, with a minimum font size of 20pt. If you can't fit on a slide what you want, then so be it. Split your slide into two, or risk losing your audience.

The minimum font size rule also applies to any images or graphics which contain words.

The grammar on a slide is fairly unimportant. It actually helps to miss out many of the joining words (the and and and therefore etc.) because this makes the slide clearer. You are also less likely to make the mistake of just reading out the text on the slides rather than presenting a talk.

Text colour and background colour

There must be a large contrast between the colours of the text and the background, or your audience will stop bothering to read or listen. If you are not sure about your choices then check it using a data projector.

Likewise, patterns on the background are generally distracting and irritating to readers because they increase the chance of colour clashes and make the words more difficult to read. Use a background pattern only if the look of your talk is more important than the content (but in this situation you might be wasting your time anyway), and try to position text away from the problem areas.

I have spotted the following particularly appalling and inexcusable colour combinations being used at major international conferences, by people who simply should have known better!

These rules also apply to images and graphics.

Spelling

Spelling mistakes are not acceptable. The audience will fixate on them (and even laugh - I've seen this happen several times), so will not be paying attention to what you're saying. Spellcheckers are a good partial solution to this, but can only go so far. Proofread everything yourself, and then ask a friend to proofread for you. They will pick up things that you did not notice.

Tables

Results are generally best presented in a table. However, remember that if you want people to read the table entries then you will have to stick to the guidelines about font size and colour (see above).

Animations

I have lost count of the number of times which an animation has failed to appear. The success rate is probably below 50% even for experienced people. Animations can really enhance a presentation but are always a risk, so think carefully about whether to use them.

If you include an animation(s) then check your slides thoroughly before giving the presentation. Even if you are using your own computer to show the slides, it is possible that it will not be able to send animations to both the computer screen and the data projector simultaneously.

Slide transition effects

If you want to animate your slide transitions, then take a deep breath, count to ten, and stop being silly. If you still want to do so, then someone should take your computer away from you. If you absolutely have to use them, then stick to a simple quick transition animation, and keep it the same for every slide. And never ever use those rubbish rotating animations which Bill Gates' lot seem to like. Your audience will not thank you for making them dizzy.

And whilst we're on the subject of slide transitions, Powerpoint has many other options which any serious talk should avoid like Rift Valley fever. Everyone hates clip art, the equation editor is rubbish and can't change colours, and timed slide changes will cause you to sweat so much that you're likely to slip on the floor. Also, Microsoft Word is not a display tool. Use Powerpoint instead.

Margins

And finally, a trap which has caught me (and others) several times. Leave a decent margin around the edge of each slide. If you don't then you're leaving yourself at the mercy of poorly aimed projectors and of dodgy Powerpoint translators which unilaterally decide to slightly increase your font sizes. And there will be nothing you can do about it....

Handouts

Unless you are giving an exam on what you just said, don't bother with handouts. They are a waste of paper because no-one reads them.

The presentation

Practise

It is bad manners to talk for longer than you are meant to. People who were not interested in the first place will dislike you because they have to put up with you for longer than they were prepared for. And if you are keeping people from a coffee break, they will either hate you or go to sleep, or both. It is easy to practise your presentation beforehand and earmark optional bits which you can cut if you are chasing the clock. Plus it's much more enjoyable to go at the pace you feel like without worrying about whether you'll have time to get to the end.

Laser pointers

Laser pointers are useful to occasionally indicate particularly important bits of the slide. These bits should have been emphasised on the slide anyway. Laser pointers are NOT to be used to indicate everything you read out from the slide. Your audience will rightfully hate you for doing this. They will switch off out of irrition! And even worse, laser pointers show that your hands are shaking. Excessive use of a laser pointer (i.e. once per slide!) is a frighteningly common mistake which should not be tolerated.

I would like to make this clear:
THERE IS NORMALLY NO REASON TO USE A LASER POINTER. AVOID ANY TEMPTATION BY LEAVING IT AT HOME.

Microphone

If you are using a microphone, then things get more complicated. You will need to keep it the same distance from your mouth at all times. If you are a naturally loud speaker then this distance should be quite large. And if you turn your head, the microphone must follow. One more pitfall: avoid getting near the loudspeakers because you could deafen everyone with feedback.

Reading the writing

An audience rapidly grows tired of speakers simply reading out their talk from the slides. People can read faster than they can listen, so if you just read out your slides then you are wasting their time. And yours.

And finally

Everyone ignores some of the above advice sometimes, either on purpose or by accident. You don't have to be perfect, so don't worry too much. All you have to do is stand up, relax, and tell your audience something interesting.

 


Last modified: 05/05/2010           John Southworth   (Keele University, UK)