I listen to a lot of people present, and obviously I present frequently, as well. Thinking about what works and what doesn’t, here’s my latest 10 Things list. I’m sure I could come up with others, but these rank as the most obvious in my mind. Feel free to add your own in the comments (or challenge some of these, of course):
- DON’T: Apologize. This may be one of my least favorite things presenters do. Whether it’s because you’re a new presenter (actually, especially if you’re a new presenter), because your technology isn’t working, or the room has lousy acoustics—don’t apologize. Easier said than done, but own the whole experience like it’s happening just as you planned, and roll with it. I promise you, it’s better that way.
- DO: Prepare. Please don’t make me wonder as a member of the audience if this is the first time you’ve looked at these slides. You may feel like you know the subject matter backwards and forwards, but that doesn’t mean you know your slides. As one of my favorite authors on this topic says: “There is nothing inspiring about winging it. If you paid $50 to see a show, would you want to see the actors and musicians winging it? You’d call them unprofessional. It’s not only disrespectful, your gamble is likely obvious to everyone in the room. Why speak if you’re only going to do it half-assed?”
- DON’T: Steal. Don’t use other people’s stuff and pass it off as your own. Don’t use other people’s stuff and not provide attribution because you were just lazy. I use other people’s stuff All. The. Time. But I give attribution. Almost all of my presentations begin with an attribution slide, because I have super smart friends and their contributions make my presentations better. It costs you nothing to provide attribution. And if you are using more than just a couple of ideas or slides, do the right thing and ask for permission. Otherwise, it’s just stealing. (See also.)
- DO: Consider your slides. Simpler is better when it comes to slides. If you can avoid the death-by-PowerPoint approach to presentations, that’s obviously a good start, but beyond that: reduce the number of words on your slides (feel free to eliminate paragraphs altogether); just say no to clip art (please, it just looks like amateur hour); avoid complicated backgrounds; and think about readability for your audience (no one can read your red or pink font!).
- DON’T: Read me your slides. Nothing will lose your audience more quickly than reading your slides to them. One way to avoid this is to simply not put much on the slides to begin with. If you’re using them as a crutch, it’s time to take the crutch away, because it’s making you ineffective as a presenter (not just less effective—ineffective). If you have to read your slides it’s because you’re not well prepared (see #2).
- DO: Be considerate of others’ time. If you are co-presenting, don’t eat into other presenters’ time. If you are the solo presenter, don’t hold people over the time of your session. Know how long your presentation is, and practice with your slides to get a general sense of timing—where you should be by the halfway mark, by 5 or 10 minutes before you wrap up. If you are an interactive presenter like I am, know what can be cut, and how you can wind up even if you haven’t gotten through all your slides, should your time run out because the conversation in the room was fruitful.
- DON’T: Worry about being nervous. Mark Twain said there are two types of speakers in the world: the nervous and liars. It’s fine to be nervous, and I always am, before I start speaking. Even now. It’s nothing to feel bad about. It’s certainly nothing for which you should apologize (see #1). You simply need to know what works best for you, in terms of managing your nerves and providing you with a greater sense of control. This article gives some nice tips, as does this one.
- DO: Know your audience. The onus is on you to learn a few things about your audience. Find out in advance who is expected (and then make sure your talk is appropriate for and hopefully tailored to that audience). Make an attempt to know something about how state protocols or laws may differ. If there are major practice differences in that region, learn something about them. Don’t walk into a room and assume everything is exactly the same there as the last place you spoke. Honor your audience by knowing something about them.
- DON’T: Overcomplicate things. Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. Nothing you have to present should require PhD-level coursework to comprehend (and lord, please don’t insult me by telling me that I may not be educated enough to understand your presentation which was an actual thing that happened at an international conference). Need inspiration on how to do this? Just listen to the master of simplifying complex scientific concepts.
- DO: Update your slides. If you give the same talk over and over (as I do), make sure you update your materials. The latest science, the newest protocols, whatever makes it clear that you are current in your practice and your teaching. And occasionally sit down and really look at some of your tried and true presentations to see if there are better or fresher ways to present the information. Giving the same canned talk time and time again is not only tedious—it ‘s lazy.
So tell me—what are some of your Dos and Don’ts?