The art of giving presentations

Some people have a gift (the 1%: OCCUPY THEM) for public speaking. I don’t mean public speaking involving empirically-devoid yet emotionally-inspiring rhetoric, factually dubious assertions, and irrelevant argumentation, but rather: the speaking that usually involves a strict adherence to the “problem-solution-impact” flow, mixed in with a few high-rollers with pockets deep enough to ensure you either continue with said solution to said problem having said impact, or you pack your bags so someone else can pick up where you left off.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen: even though we’ve likely sat through far many more bad presentations than good ones–and hence, would rather avoid them altogether–delivering good presentations is an extremely important skill to learn. And while it’s more of an art than a science, I will dedicate the rest of this entry to giving you two examples on opposite ends of the “quality” spectrum to give you an idea of what constitutes useful presentations.

Case Study 1: Don’t do this. Seriously.

A few weeks ago, I had to give a 5-minute presentation to a group of undergraduate computer science seniors who were beginning their capstone projects. The idea was that a bunch of professors were stumping for their various research thrusts in an effort to entice these students to help them out. My advisor was (conveniently…) traveling, so I spent the few days beforehand drawing up a presentation that outlined our research.

Point 1: For heaven’s sake, know your f#*%ing audience.

Since I came from a CS background, I felt like I had a good handle on this presentation; after all, I’d been in these folks’ exact shoes hardly four years previous. A subtle but critically important distinction, however: everything I learned as an undergraduate has, at this point, been internalized to the point of unconscious habit, whereas everything I mentally wrangle with on a day-to-day research basis is stuff I’ve learned since graduating. To wit:

It's all Greek to me. Quite literally.

Don’t do this. Common sense, folks: when you’re giving a 5-minute overview presentation, there is literally no reason on God’s Green Earth to put mathematical formulas into your slide deck (with, maybe, the lone exceptions of math/statistics majors). Did I have any clue what an “autoregressive model” was when I was a CS senior? Hell no. Was I capable of understanding it? Of course! But not in a 5-minute overview presentation.

Point 2: Just the facts, ma’am.

This point dovetails into a broader point: when you’re giving a 5-minute talk on your work and trying to entice others to join you, it’s nice to give the folks a quick look into the group they’d be joining. To that end, I put in a single slide that introduced the small, tight-knit lab they’d be joining:

We enjoy pina coladas and generative, rotation-invariant timeseries models.

But then I got carried away, and added a second slide of our collaborators–other high-ranking professors and doctors in our research group with whom we are conducting specific projects. Not only was there an exceedingly low chance that any of the undergraduates would recognize these researchers, but it’s highly likely that they won’t meet any of them (though two of them do work at UPitt/UPMC). It’s a somewhat minor point, but the fact that I spent a literal two seconds on the slide, blasting through it with nary a “…and these are our collaborators…OK, on to–“, it was time and space that was horrifically wasted.

Point 3: …………………………………..

This was probably the worst part. Picture this: I’m already a little over time, having hit my 5-minute limit with another few wrap-up slides to go, and I hit the following slide.

...and in this slide, I allow you to read the unabridged works of William Shakespeare.

This is a point that is relevant in any presentation: keep text at a minimum! The fact that I was already running long didn’t help; I couldn’t even explain what was happening on the slide before having to move on and finish my presentation. This was easily the pinnacle of my presentation failure. It was so awful. Rule of thumb: if there’s more text on your slide than words actually spoken while said slide is showing, you are doing it so wrong.

And then 8 of the 18 students who heard the presentation selected our project, and we took 3 of them for the semester. I haven’t made sense of that yet, but these points are still valid ones 😛

Case Study 2: Don’t do this either…but for different reasons.

A requirement in my Ph.D. program (and most any in the scientific field) is that we have to attend a once-a-week journal club session. Each week, somebody selects a recent research paper and presents its methods to the class, and places it in the broader context of the field and its impact. Following this presentation, at least one other person will then put forth a critique: what was good, what was bad, and what was really, really confusing. This past week, one of my classmates and I gave a joint critique presentation on what was, bluntly, an awful research paper.

We set the tone with our title slide:

Complete with elevator music and silent characters!

Which brings me to my first point.

Point 1 (or 4?): It’s ok to be a little goofy.

I cannot begin to illustrate how incredibly demotivational it is when a presenter fires up their slide deck, only to reveal the default, completely white-blank PowerPoint template with all of two images and nonsensical bullet points dominating the presentation landscape, and during the course of the delivery never changes the tone or inflection of their voice. Where’s the passion? Where’s the interest for what you’re doing? Do you even care? If you don’t care, why should I? I could be 18 bajillion other places right now. This is why I make it a point of including at least one lolcat in each and every presentation I deliver.

A point I abused to its highest degree in this critique. To illustrate, here is the second slide of our presentation, immediately following the aforementioned title slide:


As you can probably discern, a theme purveyed the rest of our presentation. It was a 10-minute critique and consisted of a grand total of 12 slides (contrast that to the first case study: a 5-minute “overview” presentation that consisted of 17 slides), and each slide after the title slide followed the exact same template. This slide laid out, in gross detail, the totality of the positives we found in the paper.

Point 2 (aka 5): Varied themes are good. Images are better.

This presentation was brilliant. We gave everyone in the room some eye candy with an extremely unorthodox (but built-in!) slide template, and every slide had an internet-related joke image that was relevant to the issue at hand. Out of the 12 slides in the presentation, exactly 4 had any bullet point text on them (excluding slide titles). Each slide following the first two I’ve shown you detailed out one specific complaint we had with the paper. Here’s the slide that contained the largest amount of text:

Neil deGrasse Tyson: ambassador to astronomy, lead of stargate: atlantis, and internet meme generator

And yes, this one plays heavily on Point 1 in the previous case study: if this was a formal presentation in front of heavy-hitters, we’d obviously include an image that didn’t make use of certain…colloquialisms.

Point 3 (yeah, it’s actually 6): Keep It Simple. STUPID.

Even if you’re playing to your audience, you’re still going to–inevitably–deliver a summary version of the countless hours you’ve sunk (and will hopefully continue to sink) into your work. As such, there’s a need to deliver only the poignant concepts, and in such a manner that makes them easiest to digest within the time frame allowed. I’m not advocated “dumbing down” your work, but…yes, I suppose that’s exactly what I’m advocating.

One final time, to wit: our concluding slide.

Offspring, I am confounded by your diminutive efforts.

It nailed down, without a single printed word, our feelings on the entire paper. Admittedly: it’s a lot easier to bash something than it is to praise it. But with 9 slides individually dedicated to specific complaints, this concluding slide summarized them all perfectly.

Concluding Remarks

Since this is my blog and definitely not any sort of presentation (in the purest sense, at least), I’d like to conclude–as I always try to–with a non sequitur in lieu of any rational wrap-up.


About Shannon Quinn

Oh hai!
This entry was posted in Academics, Graduate School, lolcat, Mathematics, Real Life and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The art of giving presentations

  1. eksith says:

    I have to say, I’ve done the Shakespeare slide too.

    “Neil deGrasse Tyson: ambassador to astronomy, lead of stargate: atlantis, and internet meme generator”… And Planet Killer.

    This is the most entertaining and informative presentation I’ve ever seen that I also didn’t understand.

    • magsol says:

      I’m not sure how I missed this comment before–sorry about that!

      I just discovered the Shakespeare template. It’s fantastic. And while Tyson may very well be a planet killer (Pluto will always remain the 9th planet in my book), I do have to give him credit: he’s a brilliant spokesperson, a very smart dude, and I’m proud of the work he does trying to educate the populace in matters of science.

      Informative AND entertaining! No reason they can’t coexist! 🙂

  2. engrpk says:

    I like your style, actually I have also intended to use internet memes in my presentation.

    I don’t understand why have you written this, “Case Study 2: Don’t do this either”. I haven’t anything wrong in the Case Study 2.


    • magsol says:

      My point with that title was that the slides were a little too colloquial to go in a formal presentation. It worked in that specific set of circumstances–mainly, a small class of people specifically there to practice their presentation skills–but outside that friendly and forgiving environment it was quite a lot too informal to be done in any other setting.

  3. Pingback: Year in [peer] Review | theatre of consciousness

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