Strong spoken presentations focus on the audience.
Spoken presentation is clearly different from written communication. Conveying information involves directly interacting with an audience. For some people, being at the center of a spoken presentation is exhilarating. Others (like myself), may be more reserved and uneasy with spoken presentation. Each individual must approach spoken presentation in their own way.
Although individual approaches to spoken presentation are all different, spoken presentations share one basic problem:
Spoken presentations are hard for audiences to understand.
Some things that are particularly challenging for spoken presentations are:
* Audiences can only understand a limited amount of information at any one time.
* Presentations are necessarily sequential (time-based). Audiences cannot easily go back and review information that they may have missed (or forgotten).
* Audiences have limited attention, and can easily be distracted or bored.
* Spoken presentations typically have very limited time to convey information.
Some people have the mis-perception that scientists are impressed by quantity of data or complexity of analysis. However, scientists do not typically attend presentations to be impressed. Scientists attend presentations to learn. Therefore, the objective of most presentations is to maximize learning.
Communicating potentially complex arguments in a spoken presentation is clearly a difficult task. However, some principles from "Reasoned Writing" and "A Framework for Scientific Papers" can help to create and present effective spoken presentations. Just as for writing, presentations will be more effective if they are simple and specific.
Three additional principles for spoken presentation are:
1) Use strong frameworks.
2) Use the Rule of Three.
3) Focus on the audience.
1) Use strong frameworks.
Speakers typically want audiences to focus on the content, not the format, of a presentation. Therefore, it can be helpful to use the simplest format possible for spoken presentations.
For example, one simple framework might be: QUESTION - EVIDENCE - CONCLUSION. A very short presentation might address a single question, and a longer presentation might address two or three questions. The overall structure of a longer presentation could repeat the same framework for each section of the presentation:
Sometimes it may be necessary to explain some detail (like a necessary aspect of the methods) during the course of an argument. Repeating the same framework can also help to explain sub-questions:
Each "branch" of the hierarchy could either branch to a more specific dichotomy (for a long presentation), or move on to specific information presented in the QUESTION - EVIDENCE - CONCLUSION framework.
Of course, other frameworks are also possible. For example, a more methods-oriented presentation (such as a research proposal) might use a QUESTION - PROBLEM - SOLUTION framework.
APPLICATION: Strong, repeated frameworks can reduce the amount of effort that audiences need to devote to understanding the format of a presentation. Therefore, strong, repeated frameworks can increase the amount of attention that audiences can devote to understanding the content of a presentation.
2) Use the Rule of Three.
The Rule of Three is particularly important for spoken presentations. The capacity of working memory is very limited, and it is simply not possible for most people to entertain too many pieces of information at once. Moreover, forgetting is a critical part of memory. We forget the vast majority of sensory information that we collect. Even important information in working memory is not necessarily consolidated to long-term memory and often forgotten. Therefore, presenters cannot expect audiences to be able to retain information previously discussed in a presentation.
The Rule of Three the has two parts:
The first recommendation, to use 3 or fewer important elements in each level of an argument, can be applied to any part of a spoken presentation. For example, focusing on a single main conclusion can result in the strongest presentation. Frameworks used to explain arguments can involve three or fewer elements. Dichotomies, if appropriate, can provide audiences clear choices.
Spoken presentations are hard for audiences to understand. Therefore, audiences appreciate presentations that are easy to understand.
The second part of the Rule of Three, to repeat elements that are important for audiences to understand and remember 3 or more times, is important in presentations for two main reasons:
A) There is a reasonable probability that audiences will miss an element of information when the information is presented.
The probability of missing information clearly depends on the individual audience member and the clarity of the presentation. However, imagine that an audience member has a 30% chance of missing a piece of information each time the information is presented to them. If the information is presented only once, the audience member has a 30% chance of not ever retaining the piece of information. If the information is presented twice, the audience member has an almost 10% chance of missing both presentations. However, if information is presented three times, there is a less than 3% chance that the audience member will miss the information all three times. Therefore, repeating important elements of a presentation three times (or more) greatly increases the likelihood that audiences will have the opportunity to understand and retain important information.
Moreover, missing information can make it very difficult for someone to understand a presentation. If an audience member misses an important element of information, the person may not be able to fully understand other information that follows. Therefore, repetition provides additional opportunities for audience members to understand potentially large parts of presentations.
B) Repetition is important for people to retain the information that they hear.
It is not easy to remember information heard only once. Repetition helps people to remember by emphasizing the repeated information and reinforcing memories.
One example of using both repetition and frameworks is to repeat important frameworks multiple times during a presentation. For example, imagine we were creating slides for a presentation using the following framework:
We might be tempted to simply "flatten" our tree into a sequence of slides:
However, by the time the audience has gotten to the 6th slide ("Energy Out") they may have forgotten the dichotomy that motivated the presentation in the first place! Therefore, it would be helpful to repeat the main questions and conclusions of the study:
Repeating the central question and dichotomy of the presentation can help audiences better understand where each argument fits in the overall presentation. Repetition can also prevent audience members from missing information, and facilitate understanding and learning.
APPLICATION: Reducing and repeating frameworks and elements of arguments is a powerful tool to emphasize important points and help audiences understand and retain information.
3) Focus on the audience.
Focusing on the audience involves creating presentations designed to help audiences understand and retain conclusions from the presentation. Presentations serve the audience, not the presenter. Therefore, a presenter may not be able to discuss everything that they would like to discuss.
Provide enough factual information for scientists in a different field to understand your arguments.
An appropriate audience for a scientific presentation is a scientist in a different field. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect audiences to understand the scientific method, basic principles of the natural sciences, and basic mathematics and statistics. However, scientists cannot be expected to know the definitions of technical terms. Scientists also cannot be expected to know relevant research relating to the topic of your presentation.
Therefore, it is important to:
A) Define all necessary terminology before using it.
B) Provide specific, factual evidence for all elements of a presentation.
Just as for written papers, all factual statements of scientific presentations should be supported with references to peer-reviewed, quantitative research. References are clearest when they are parenthetical, and immediately following the statements that the references support. Therefore, references should directly follow premises (i.e. on the same slide). Even definitions typically require references.
Use a reasoned framework.
Just as for written communication, reasoning is the strongest framework for scientific presentations. Scientific audiences understand and respect strong reasoning. Lists can be helpful to create hierarchies such as trees to support reasoning. Just as for written communication, creating a strong reasoned outline can be invaluable. Spoken presentations can directly use many of the subheadings of an outline as bullet points for the presentation. Therefore, developing a strong outline does not require more time to develop a presentation (and can actually save time).
Only present essential information.
Audiences have limited capacity to quickly absorb large amounts of information. Scientists are no different. Even audiences of trained scientists or professionals appreciate presentations that reduce the amount information that members of the audience must process. Therefore, strong presentations present only and all the essential information necessary to understand a research project.
Basing a presentation on a strong, reasoned outline can help to limit presentation to only including essential information. Text or data can only be added to the presentation if the information has a strong, specific place in an argument. For example, long quotes are seldom necessary in scientific presentations. Most often, very specific conclusions or data from the quotes are sufficient to support premises of an argument.
One way to reduce non-essential information in a presentation is to use a LARGE text size throughout the presentation. For slide presentations, text can be 32 point bold or larger. If text does not fit on a slide (or does not include adequate spacing between lines), then the solution is to reduce the amount of text, not to decrease the font size (however tempting smaller text may be).
Some of the most consequential people listening to your presentation may not be able to see or hear as well as you can. Many people cannot distinguish different colors (such as red and green), and projectors may not render colors accurately. Therefore, using large, bold fonts and graphics that do not depend on color to be understood can help everyone understand the information in your presentation.
Capture and direct attention.
Attention is a limited resource. Audience members can only focus attention at one thing at a time. Therefore, effective presentations directly focus attention on one element at a time. Directing attention involves two components:
A) Minimize distractions.
To minimize distractions, introduce and discuss one element at a time. ALL other information available to audiences can be distracting. Therefore, distractions include:
* Slide backgrounds that contain text or images. Consistent, plain backgrounds are adequate for scientific presentations.
* Unnecessary text or data. Text or data that do not directly contribute to the current argument should be removed.
* Unnecessary images. For example, clip art or stock photos can be unnecessarily distracting.
The presenter themselves can also be a distraction! A presenter cannot expect audiences to be capable of reading text on a slide and listening to the presenter at the same time. People who try to read and listen at the same time are likely to become confused and not understand either the visual or spoken information. Therefore, presentations should be structured so that the presenter can help the audiences read all text, figures, and images before discussing them.
For example, when introducing a figure, it is important to first slow down and "walk" the audience through the figure. Explain what each of the axes are, and what any symbols, lines, or shapes represent. The audience needs time to process the information in a figure. Once the presenter has taken the time to explain WHAT a figure is, then the presenter can move on to explain WHY the information contributes to the argument.
B) Direct attention.
Even if presentations effectively minimize distractions in the presentation itself, there are many distractions that presenters do not have control over. Other people in the room, phones, computers, or simply unrelated thoughts can all be distractions. Therefore, it is important for presenters to capture and direct attention.
One way of directing attention is through movement. Movement can occur on presentation slides. For example, using animation features of most presentation software to progressively introduce text can help capture and direct attention (and help to limit the amount of information that audiences need to process at any one time). Therefore, use animations to only introduce and discuss ONE element of a presentation at a time.
Movement does not need to be limited to slides! The presenter can also provide a source of movement. When possible, interact with the information in the presentation as much as possible: by pointing, gesticulating, etc.
Use images and video that are directly relevant to the presentation. An old saying is "A picture is worth a thousand words." The saying applies to scientific presentations as well. Images and videos naturally direct attention.
For example, below is a slow-motion video of a cockroach with a cannon firing off its back (the video is slowed down about 50 times, and represents about half a second of real time).
It may be easier to remember the video than anything else in the module.
Images and videos can be extremely powerful. However, images and videos can also be extremely distracting. Therefore, it is important to make sure that images and video directly contribute to supporting the arguments of the presentation.
Audiences are most likely to retain information from the end of a presentation. Therefore,if you would like audiences to remember the conclusions of your presentation, END the presentation with the conclusions.
Acknowledgments are not as important as conclusions. Therefore, if a presentation has an acknowledgements slide -- put it at the beginning! Placing an acknowledgments slide at the beginning of the presentation is gracious, and also gets the acknowledgments out of the way.
Tell a story.
Narratives can be particularly important for spoken presentations. Both the presentation content itself and the method of presentation can help create engaging, compelling narratives. The structure of the presentation can use frameworks such as the Hero's Journey. Interesting narratives contain conflict: "but" conjunctions and disjunctions.
Moreover, verbally and physically illustrating and emphasizing conflict can also be helpful. Be theatrical! Changes to intonation, pregnant pauses, earnest looks, and other elements of stagecraft are entirely appropriate for scientific presentations if they contribute to directing attention and helping audiences understand and retain the conclusions of the presentation.
One rule of thumb is: the more important the statement, the slower to make it.
Let audiences come to the conclusions.
People are quite attached to their own ideas, and most people feel positive and satisfied when they solve problems. Therefore, if you frame a presentation in a way that presents data so that the audiences naturally arrive at the conclusions of the presentations by themselves, then the presentation is likely to be more effective and memorable. “Don’t give the audience 4, give them 2+2" (Andrew Stanton).