One of the things about research is that sometimes you want to tell people about it (or need to tell people about it.)
The details of what makes a great presentation depend a bit on what you’re doing and who you’re presenting to, but since I just did one in March and I’m preparing another one for early June at work, now seems a good time to talk a bit about my process in case it’s helpful to anyone else.
Preparing in advance
Among writers, one of the commonly phrased distinctions is between plotters (people who plot their writing in advance) and pantsers (as in ‘writing by the seat of their…’, who make it up as they go along.)
I think there’s something similar with presentations. I’m the kind of person who starts thinking about what I’m doing months in advance. I tease a friend who starts thinking about slides a couple of weeks in advance, if that.
On the other hand, if you’re putting together slides, you do need to leave some time to do that, because the process of making the things always takes longer than you think it’s going to.
(Or is that just me? I don’t think it’s just me.)
One of the biggest factors in presentations is the question of time, so that’s where I always start.
There are different styles of presenting – some of them are about personal preference, some are about the style asked for in whatever you’re doing, and some are a mix. Obviously, if there’s a set format (like pecha kucha, which is popular in tech conferences and some library settings)
The presentation I did in March was just me for a full hour, so I had a lot of freedom about how to structure it. The one in June is a panel discussion where I get maybe 15 minutes. Obviously, there’s a lot of difference in how much content I can fit.
Some people do relatively few slides, and spend a lot of time on them. I more generally prefer very brief slides, with about 30 seconds on most of them and lingering on them. (I usually fall into this, though it depends on the presentation.)
Another factor is whether the slides are getting distributed after. If my slides are mostly for the presentation factor and not getting distributed as notes afterwards, I usually go for fewer words (and I also generally do a text-based writeup – I often do this if I have lots of links or things I want to explain briefly.)
If my slides are the principle information people are getting, then I’ll use more words, and I’ll structure it so the slides and presenter comments sections cover the key information, and then I can share the notes and people can make sense of the content.
I find it really helpful to set up slides and then move things around as I develop the presentation. It usually looks like this:
1) Pick a theme if I need to (work makes this easy: there’s a set one we’re supposed to use.)
2) Set up the title slide and a slide at the end for questions and contact information. With professional presentations, I usually know what the title is by this point because I had to come up with something for the program.
3) Make a slide for each big point I want to make.
4) As I work through the content, make additional slides as I need to break things down more, or need more space. Doing this by clumps of content works best for me.
5) Periodically review the entire deck and see what needs to be moved around, or duplicates itself, or needs a bit more expansion.
(In the slide deck I’m currently creating at work, I realised that I really needed to back up and explain things for two slides before I got into the content, to put something in better context. I don’t want to dwell on it in detail, but I need to remember that most people in the room don’t live and breathe the details!)
6) Somewhere in here, putting some images in is good.
I’m not a visually driven person – I’m just as happy with well-chosen text-based design (like a big word or short phrase on a slide, with maybe some additional text below)
But other people like images, so I look for ways to include them (and then include alt-text and other appropriate captioning and description for accessibility.) The current presentation has images of the people and places I’m talking about. If I’m just looking for decorative images, Unsplash is a great source for public domain images.
7) Edit the presentation to a reasonable length
For me, this is no more than one slide per minute, and I may make further cuts depending.
8) Time the presentation.
This is when I run through the presentation (usually two or three times) to get a sense for timing and what information I need a bit more time on or what can be cut or combined.
9) Save in all the formats
Having had enough glitches, I bring a copy on USB, save a copy in a format I can get to via Google Drive or email, and usually save a copy in an alternate format (PDF) as well in both places. Just in cases.
The actual process of presenting is pretty straight-forward:
1) Test the technology early.
The conference in March was great – they let me get in the room, get my file on the computer used with the projector, all when I first arrived. Sometimes that’s not possible.
2) Get to the room before my presentation with plenty of time.
I usually do a quick pause by the bathroom, make sure I have water, and then go there without lingering after the previous section. (If there’s 15 minutes between presentations, this usually works fine: I’m there at least 10 minutes in advance.)
3) Get the slides up, and any handouts out where people can get them. Check if there’s any introduction happening, and if so what I need to do about that.
(In professional settings, this usually involves correcting how you pronounce my last name. People insist on making it French. It hasn’t been French since the Norman Invasion, in terms of it being my family name.
4) Do the presentation.
I don’t get stage fright (there are advantages to growing up with a theatre professor and performer and lecturer as a parent), and I’m not really experienced in how to deal with it if you do.
But this is the point where you need to do the thing or you’re not doing the thing. If you think doing the thing is going to be a problem, sorting that out in advance is usually better if you can.
5) When you’re done, share whatever you said you’re going to share.
This might be your slides, a handout, a text version of the presentation, or something else. It might be passing out business cards or contact information.