17.3 Presentation Structure
Now it's time to plan your structure. Following the conventions of great oral presentations is a great place to start:
Explain a problem (including evidence)
Suggest a solution (including evidence)
Perhaps go back and forth between these
Surprise! It's become part of the genre of oral presentations to begin with an attention-getter. The reason for this is that people generally decide within the first 30 seconds whether they think a presentation will be good or not and whether they'll listen in or tune out. First impressions matter, so take advantage of the moment. This doesn't mean you need to do a wild interpretive dance or a stand-up comedy routine or throw out piles of money for people to take notice. You simply need to do something interesting that's relevant to your topic. This could be as simple as telling a story or presenting a surprising statistic, showing a poignant picture, or asking a rhetorical question.
Nancy Duarte began her famous TED Talk with the bold statement, "I believe you have the power to change the world." In contrast, Garr Reynolds talked about his job as a presentations consultant (introducing an appeal to character) and added a promise that he would share the 10 most important things he's learned for improving presentations.
Do something surprising. I remember one of my students started her presentation speaking to us in Japanese for about 15 seconds. This immediately caught our attention because we wondered why she would do something so out of the ordinary. She went on to talk about second language learners and the best strategies for teaching children to learn a second language. By speaking in Japanese, she helped her audience feel how uncomfortable it is not to understand the language being spoken, which made her audience sympathetic to her cause.
Do a demonstration. Another student brought a small blanket, wrapped it up and held it like a baby. She began talking "baby talk" to the blanket for a few moments. She then introduced the concept of "motherese" (the exaggerated "baby talk" mothers often use with their children). This student explained that although baby talk was discouraged in the past as immature and coddling, motherese was actually beneficial to children's language development because it turns out mothers naturally exaggerate the sounds the babies first attempt to make. It was fascinating, and I still remember it. I also proudly use baby talk whenever I hold a baby.
Sometimes you can surprise your audience by waiting until after the beginning to really catch their attention. I had a Math Education student who started in a typical fashion describing what she had researched about a certain way to teach the concept of dividing fractions. Then she stopped her presentation, grabbed a marker, and proceeded to teach us a concept—in this case a math concept—the way she would in a classroom by writing it out on the whiteboard. She did such a good job teaching the concept that it was like a lightbulb went off in everyone's brains—suddenly we understood how to divide fractions! By showing rather than telling, this student proved her point that the new teaching method was effective.
The point is that if you think outside the box and find a way to add interest to your topic, your audience will be more interested in your presentation and will keep listening. Think of how you can involve your audience in your presentation.
Tell a Story
One universal way to add interest to a presentation is to add some kind of story. (You can also refer to the section in Chapter 5 Style that talks about Story.) According to Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner, a person is 22 times more likely to remember a fact when it's told as part of a story (Harrison, 2015). 22 times! Here's a two-minute video of Nancy Duarte talking about the power of story:
You can add storytelling elements to your presentation in two ways: globally and locally.
If you can take your presentation's message and treat it like a story with a beginning, middle, and end, then you're halfway there. Your presentation itself can feel like a story or a journey you take us on if you start with a theme, develop it with strong points and good examples, and end with excitement and closure. Think of the solution you offer like a "happily ever after."
You can also add specific stories about people into your presentation to demonstrate a concept or show an example of someone affected by the problem you're talking about. I remember a student talking about a migrant worker named Charles he met while serving as a volunteer in Spain. Charles's picture personal story of leaving his wife and daughter in his home country in order to work in Spain and send them money stuck with me and added an emotional, human element to a presentation on the economics of migration.
One of the most powerful types of story is a personal story because it shows vulnerability and helps your audience identify with you. Most TED Talks include some kind of personal story for this reason. I still remember when one of my students showed a picture of a family and talked about how the older sister's chronic health problems affected the family. She specifically mentioned the consequences the older sister's illness had on the younger, healthy sister--things like feeling neglected, lonely, and scared. She then revealed that the younger sister was herself and went on to talk about her research about the effects of children with chronic illnesses on their healthy siblings. As you can imagine, these presentations that include a story (whether at the beginning or somewhere else) become more memorable and powerful because of them.
If your attention-getter is relevant to your topic, it will naturally serve as background on your topic; however, it's also important to explain why your topic is important. You can do this the way you often do in the Introduction of research papers—by providing statistics, giving context, and showing implications surrounding this topic.
Indicate Your Organization
Because your presentation is oral, it will be harder for your audience to understand the logical flow of your paper, so do them a favor and indicate in your introduction where you plan to go in your presentation. Explain your purpose so your audience knows exactly what your point is and then refer back to it in every section. If you use directional words like first, second, next, finally, etc., you can cue your listeners to your organization and help them understand the progression of your points. Similarly, good transitions between sections and sentences will also help your audience follow your organization. You can also add headings to your slides that indicate where you are in your presentation.
Although you'll spend much effort planning your Beginning, it should only take up about 10-20% of your presentation time, so for a 10-minute presentation, that's no more than 1-2 minutes.
If you've done your job at the beginning, your audience should be interested in your topic, understand your purpose, and be ready to hear your main points. In a short presentation (15 minutes or less), you only have time to make about 2-4 main points before it's time to conclude—it generally takes up to two minutes to make a point. Even in a longer presentation (up to an hour), you still want to focus on only about five main points total, spending a little more time on each than you would in a short presentation. So use your time well. It helps to create an outline of this section to keep yourself organized.
Each point you make should refer back to your overall purpose as you go. Focus on the problem that you're trying to solve and the solutions you're offering your audience. Generally, you want to order your points like this:
This is because your audience will remember your last point best and your first point second best. This section is where you want to cite lots of sources to provide evidence for your points and increase your credibility. You can also appeal to your audience's emotions as you go and include attention-grabbing elements and stories here as well, although your strongest appeal will be logical: whether your examples and evidence are convincing. Again, transitions and directional words (first, second, etc.) will help you guide your audience on your logical journey. The middle section should take up 60-80% of your presentation.
Think about your purpose and the middle of your own presentation. List 2-4 main points you could make about your topic to inform and persuade your audience. List them in order of second best, your other point(s), then your best point last.
At the end of your presentation, as in a typical paper's conclusion, you should briefly summarize your main points—remind your audience of the journey you took them on. If you started with a story or attention-getter, bring it full circle by mentioning it again in the context of the solutions you've offered. Remind your audience of your purpose, then bring it home with your Call to Action. Answer the question your audience will inevitably be asking: So what? What does this have to do with me? The answer is your invitation to take action to help solve the problem you've introduced. Here are some examples of Calls to Action from my students' class presentations:
Donate $1 to a fund to stop World Hunger
Add the phone number for the suicide prevention hotline to their phones and if they suspect a friend is contemplating suicide, commit to asking them about it directly
Attend an event during maternal health week at our university
Call their legislator about an immigration issue
Be more sympathetic when listening to someone who stutters
As in the beginning, the end should also take up between 10-20% of your presentation. Often you'll take questions at the end of a presentation, so be sure to plan for that in your timing.
A word on timing. If your presentation has a time limit, DO NOT GO OVER THE TIME LIMIT! Your audience will immediately stop paying attention when your time is up, and if you're presenting for a class, you'll probably lose points on your grade.
Practice giving the presentation, and have a backup plan for how to wrap up if things take longer than anticipated. There are various reasons you could run out of time—technical difficulties, the previous presenter going long, a schedule change, etc. Pinpoint places where you could cut or condense your points. I tell my students that when they hit the one-minute-left mark, they should start their conclusion whether or not they've made it through all their other points. Timing is more important than getting through everything—and mentioning any of your middle points is much less important than ending with a strong conclusion!
Harrison, Kate. (January 20, 2015) https://www.forbes.com/sites/kateharrison/2015/01/20/a-good-presentation-is-about-data-and-story/#1a09f5912b83)
Duarte, N. “The secret structure of great talks.”
17.4 Presentation Tools
Lastly, we need to talk about the tools you can use to enhance your presentation and improve your delivery so your presentation is received as favorably as possible.
Slide software like PowerPoint provides an easy way to add visuals to your presentation, but beware that the focus should still always be on you--the presenter. Remember presentation zen and don't get caught up in adding lots of bullet points or images to your slides. You can use this popular software to create your slides:
But the most important thing to remember is that you don't need anything fancy—on the contrary, because the focus should be on you not your slides, any slide software should allow you to create simple, clutter-free, message-oriented slides.
Keep presentation zen in mind and don't add something just because you can: don't use fancy swipes or animations, and if you really need to refer to notes, put them in the "Notes" section of the presentation (seen only by the presenter) or use good old-fashioned index cards. See Chapter 6 Design for more instruction on designing beautiful slides. You can also watch David JP Phillips's TED Talk on "How to Avoid Death by PowerPoint" where he makes the following excellent points based on what our brains can handle:
Have only one message per slide
Use contrast and size to highlight the most important information
Don't put full sentences on slides (unless you're showing a quote)
Never include more than 6 items on a slide
How Will You Improve?
Name one presentation tool—concerning visuals or delivery—that you've used poorly in the past that you want to improve in this presentation. Explain how you'll do better this time around.
Visuals should be visual. Relevant images are a powerful way to transmit meaning in a presentation; however, you must be careful that your images enhance what you're saying and don't detract. One way to do this is if you're using a photo, have it take up the whole space of the slide, touching the edges. You can add text to your slide, but keep it very simple.
Again, think about copyright. When you're presenting solely for educational use in a classroom, most images and videos will fall under the fair use act and are allowed. However, as soon as you present publicly outside the classroom—even online—you need to be sure you're following copyright guidelines.
A great way to look for images is go to my favorite website for beuatiful, copyright-free images (where most of the images from this book come from): Unsplash.com. Or you can do a Google Search, click on "Settings," then "Advanced Search," then scroll down to "usage rights" and choose "free to use or share." This will bring up images that are generally free to use as long as you attribute who the author is in your text (like a citation). Note: even if you use a copyright-free image, you usually need to attribute the creator in the caption with a link to the online location of the image. For more information on copyright, go to https://copyright.byu.edu/.
Videos can be very compelling, but make sure they're relevant and that you only show the essential parts. No video should be longer than 20% of the presentation, so in an 8-10 minute presentation, it should be no longer than 2-3 minutes. If possible, embed videos into your document instead of just having a link that you click on. That said, watch out for copyright violation. Linking to a document is not a problem, but if you have to download someone else's video in order to embed it, that can be a copyright violation.
If you use links instead, be sure to go in before your presentation and open each video once so no ads pop up at the beginning during your presentation—super annoying! Even if you embed your video, sometimes it doesn't work when you click on it, so I recommend opening the original videos in a different window to have as a backup. Videos are the #1 technology problem in presentations, so have a contingency plan. Incidentally, whenever you introduce a clip—it helps to tell your audience something to look for so they watch with a purpose.
I had a French teacher in college who had an anti-talent with technology. Unfortunately, he taught a class on French History where almost every day he had to show art on a slide projector and play music on a CD player (yes, those were the olden days). Inevitably he could never even get a simple CD player to work and would call out, "Est-ce qu'il y a un technicien dans la classe?" Is there a technician in the class? We lost a lot of time in that class due to technical difficulties (and secretly made fun of him outside of class). Don't be like my French teacher--be prepared!
When you only have 8-10 minutes to make a point, you can't afford time-consuming technical glitches. So make a backup plan! Come early to set up! Test out your presentation and links before you actually get up to present. Email your presentation to yourself so you can always access it from another computer if your computer dies. Even better, make a copy on a desktop or thumb drive that you can plug into someone else's computer if the internet suddenly stops working.
You can't plan for all technical difficulties--I had a student who wanted to make a point by throwing a glass plate on the ground (it was safely in a ziplock bag). Unfortunately, the bag split open and actually shattered all over the carpeted classroom floor. After a call to the janitor and a lot of distraction, we got it cleaned up, but not without scaring a lot of people and losing valuable presentation time. Here are some tips with dealing with technical difficulties:
Have a backup plan (or two)
Try not to get flustered
If something doesn't work twice in a row, calmly move on
If you do miss a video, etc., explain what the point of that part of your presentation would have been
You’re not Lady Gaga. Don’t wear a dress made out of meat. Dress professionally. I tell my students to think about their audience and dress one notch more formally than them. A safe bet is to dress as if you're going to a job interview—that will lend credibility to your presentation. You can't foresee all issues, but you can usually control what you wear. Usually.
As an undergraduate, I once presented a paper at a conference, and several of my colleagues and friends came to watch in the audience. I walked up to the podium, gave my presentation, and walked back to my seat. I thought it went great! Until we walked out of the room and I felt a draft.
I was wearing a long fitted skirt that had a seam up the back, and unbeknownst to me, the seam had split open almost all the way up the back, showing my underwear! It turns out my presentation was much more revealing than I'd meant it to be. It was like living that nightmare where you show up to school in your underwear! And no one told me about it until after the conference session!
Avoid wardrobe malfunctions like mine by choosing professional clothes and practice giving your presentation in them so you can find out at home rather than in front of a crowd that your outfit has a weak seam.
I can't emphasize enough the importance of practicing your presentation before your give it. It's almost impossible to get the timing right on the first try, but after practicing it several times with a timer, you'll have a sense of how long each section takes. Find your most honest friend to give you feedback—especially on your delivery.
A lot of people have ticks or habits or gestures that they don't know they do in front of people. For example, I took an acting class and got the feedback that apparently, whenever I'm trying to seem serious or angry, I plant my feet and sway back and forth. When I received my first set of student evaluations as a teacher, one of them said I touch my hair a lot. I had no idea. Nor did I realize it would bug someone throughout the semester. I just wish they'd told me earlier! By practicing your presentation, you can work out all those ticks before you present instead of finding them out in the comments afterward.
Finally, present confidently! And if you don't feel confident, act confident! Research shows that audiences can't differentiate between someone who is confident and someone who's just pretending to be. Look your audience in the eye and speak slowly and clearly. Most novices speak too quietly and way too fast. If you're using a microphone, you need to speak even slower than you think to be understood. I once spoke at a graduation ceremony and the main note I received during the practice was that I needed to speak half as fast into the microphone! This felt very unnatural, but when I saw the recording afterward, I realized they were right.
If you're nervous about presenting, see Amy Cuddy's TED Talk about how you can increase your confidence in front of people simply by focusing on your posture.
I hope that now you know that an oral presentation doesn't have to fill you with dread like mine did when I was eight. You just have to find your presentation zen. Simplify, focus on the most important things, stay organized, appeal to logic, character, and emotion, use your resources wisely, practice, and be confident, and you will be on the path to creating inspiring presentations.
17.5 Poster Presentations
Often, academic and professional conferences include poster sessions, which is a different kind of oral presentation. For most of us the term "poster" conjures images of our second grade science fair where we bought a piece of poster board (okay, Mom or Dad bought us a piece of poster board) and then we cut and pasted relevant pictures to help the other kids in our class understand the science principle we had researched. It seems counter-intuitive to use such an old school technology in today's tech heavy world. But, many of our second grade skills still work beautifully in an academic conference setting.
What is an academic poster session?
Most academic conferences include workshops, panels, and posters. The poster session of the conference is generally held in a large hall with aisles and aisles of posters reporting current research geared toward conference attendees. Poster sessions are loud and chaotic. Dozens of presenters and audiences asking and answering questions and generally engaged in lively research discussions.
Why present a poster instead of a presentation?
You could present your research in a presentation format—and many times you will; but, a poster session allows a much more personal interactive engagement with your audience. According to Colin Purrington, photographer and blogger, "Research shows that people who are standing are more engaged listeners than people sitting in chairs." Audiences can also view your poster when you aren't present.
What is a conference poster?
An academic poster is generally a large paper mounted on the wall with a short engaging title, a prompt to your research question, a little about your research findings, and a short list of published research from experts in the field all presented in a visual graphical format, bright colors, and limited text. Your academic poster should invite an interested audience to come over and learn more.
What are the academic poster requirements?
Most academic posters are approximately 3'x4', professionally printed, and organized into columns (usually 3 or 4) and sections or boxes to help readers quickly access research information. Posters usually have a banner heading containing the poster title, the presenters/researchers name or names and the sponsoring body or institution/school. Blogger Colin Purrington shares some templates to make this process easier.
What template or software did you use to create your poster? Why?
How do I avoid making common poster mistakes?
Avoid wordiness. Try to limit text to 1000 words or less.
Maintain adequate white space or negative space. Avoid making your poster look crowded.
Use a sans-serif font for titles and headings and use a serif font for text (see Chapter 6 Design).
Use list format when appropriate—avoid large blocks of text.
Use italics or bold, rather than underline, for emphasis. Underline is generally reserved for hyperlinks.
Use consistent single spacing.
Avoid hyphenating words.
Use consistent contrast. Avoid dark or bright or busy backgrounds behind black text.
Avoid crazy color schemes. make your color palette pleasing and appropriate for your research topic.
Label graphic elements figure 1, figure 2, and so forth. Give your graphics titles and captions. Provide the source for any graphics and visuals you don't create yourself.
Use graphics and pictures. Visual elements draw and inform viewers more than text alone.
Make sure viewers can see and read text and visuals comfortably from 3-6 feet away.
Format references in the correct format for your field and position the references section at the bottom or bottom right on your poster.
Have a colleague proof your poster.
How do I present a poster?
At most academic poster sessions you stand next to your poster and guide the reader through it; but, it should be designed so that a viewer can understand your research if you aren't there.
Give viewers a SHORT 3-4 minute well-rehearsed overview of your poster and your research and then invite questions. The value of a poster session is that it is interactive.
Dress Professionally. Avoid chewing gum and keep your hands out of your pockets.
Maintain comfortable eye contact.
Thank viewers for visiting.
Steven M. Block of Princeton University warns, "Remember that when it comes to posters, style, format, color, readability, attractiveness, and showmanship all count. Take the time to get things right."
Poster Design Revolution
One last note is that there's a grass-roots revolution going on in academic poster design led by Mike Morrison who was a frustrated PhD student who spent a year researching better poster design ideas to try to improve the cluttered, text-heavy conference posters that made conference sessions overwhelming and exhausting. He provides clean, easy-to-look-at templates for his "better design[ed]" posters and explains and why's and how's in this 20-minute video. You don't have to watch it, but it's backed by good psychological research and represents a current trend that could make your poster much more likely to be noticed and read.
17.6 The Concluding Conclusion
Communicating to others is one of our most human traits, and now you know how to best present your ideas to other humans. If you remember to analyze your audience, keep yourself organized, use smart design, and act professionally, your presentation will be listened to and make a difference.
We've reached the end of our journey together in this chapter and this book. We hope you've enjoyed your time learning how to improve your writing and communication skills. Now it's your turn to do the second part of our school's motto and the goal of this book:
"Enter to learn; go forth to serve."