academic presentations, some conjectures

So, I don’t know that I have any answers about what makes for a good (academic) presentation (though, note that the comments to that post have links to some fantastic advice). For now I’ll just put up a few conjectures for what might work. I think the below points are counter to what most presentations look like, indeed (mostly) counter to all my past presentations (except the two presentations I’ve done since starting to think about this issue a few weeks ago).

  1. Tell your story — I think its interesting to hear how one finds a research question, why the question keeps you up at night, the journey the question’s taken you on.
  2. Tell a story. This is different from the above, I think a coherent narrative needs to be interwoven into a presentation. You need a plot.
  3. Don’t have more than six words per slide. Somehow there is a sense that one’s slides ought to make sense to someone who didn’t attend the presentation. I don’t think so. Slides aren’t meant to be read, they’re not meant to summarize the paper — they’re there to illustrate and perhaps prompt.
  4. Use pictures (high-quality ones, not clip art), and in particular, figures. I think the ol’ saying ‘picture=1000 words’ might be right.
  5. Be ‘into it’ and have fun. If you’re not into your own presentation and having fun, the audience certainly is neither.
  6. All of this, of course, presumes that you have a brilliant research question in the first place.

OK, that’s all I have for now — perhaps some additional presentation-related conjectures later; I’ve got a few presentations coming up soon, so I’ll definitely be thinking about this issue.

Written by teppo

May 13, 2008 at 6:27 pm

7 Responses

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  1. Might add one thing — I think it might be helpful to use the Heath & Heath, “Made to Stick” intuition. Make your presentation – simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and have stories. Might sound a bit like selling out — so I thought as well: academic presentations aren’t commercials for heaven’s sake!! — but don’t worry. (Read the book if you haven’t yet.)



    May 13, 2008 at 6:45 pm

  2. Thanks Teppo for these points.

    I think all of these are do-able, but I find 6 words per slide to be tricky. I would agree that too much content can drown the listener… but 6 words?? :) I guess it can be done… and the argument that its not a speech free tool, but rather one to be used along side an actual talk… as a suppliment



    Peter B

    May 13, 2008 at 8:26 pm

  3. I think your ideas about pictures are good. It is very important to use original images, not stock images, as you point out. Stock images don’t make anything concrete.

    It is also important to decide what the key slide will be. This should preferably be an illustration of some sort. Keep in mind that your presentation is setting you up for that punchline. There should be hints and allusions, foreshadowing, to prepare the audience for that slide (without giving it away). It doesn’t have to be the last slide. There can be a denouement.

    Also, I think presentations should be able to stand alone. Even when presenting a paper, it should not be necessary to have read it to follow the presentation. It may still be necessary to have read the paper in order to participate intelligently in the discussion. But the quality of the presentation itself should not depend on it.



    May 13, 2008 at 8:37 pm

  4. I think all of these are do-able, but I find 6 words per slide to be tricky. I would agree that too much content can drown the listener… but 6 words?? :)

    Yep. Occasionally it’s useful to put up a quotation, but putting as absolutely few words as possible on the slide is the right idea. Think of them as section headings in a book. You wouldn’t have paragraph-long section headings, would you?



    May 13, 2008 at 8:53 pm

  5. Good point Kieran


    Peter B

    May 13, 2008 at 9:38 pm

  6. Just since it hasn’t been said (not that it isn’t obvious, that is): speak dynamically, but move around slowly and sparingly. Speak clearly, loudly (enough) and slowly, please.


    Jenn Lena

    May 14, 2008 at 12:53 am

  7. These are great points. I am currently making a ppt for my dissertation proposal defense and trying to stick to these rules. Do you think citations should go into slides or not? I feel that they tend to distract, but I think your committee would want to see them on your slides.



    August 9, 2009 at 2:19 pm

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