Geotimes May 1999
Ten Commandments for Presenters
By Hugh Hay-Roe
Anyone who has attended even a few earth science society conferences has noticed the range in quality of the presentations. Some papers are a joy to sit through; others can leave you confused, frustrated, or fast asleep. Presentations may fail because the speakers prepare the script as if they were writing a paper for publications. They forget that a paper given orally differs from a published paper in three crucial ways:
A live audience is like a group taking a guided tour - unless they have reviewed the subject in advance, they are totally dependent on the speaker to orient them before they set off. If the speaker fails to do so properly at the outset, the group will soon be lost.
Unlike readers, listeners cannot pause to re-read what they didn't understand. They cannot jump past the dull stuff to get to what interests them, nor go back to find an important point they missed.
Most people take in information better by eye than by ear, so visual aids are crucial. The more complex the subject, the more important it is to have clear visuals.
With those distinctions in mind, here are 10 guidelines for better oral presentations.
1. Define clearly what you wish to accomplish with your presentation. In most instances, your purpose is to inform, but sometimes your primary goal is to persuade. Or you may wish to entertain. Some talks are a combination of these purposes.
2. Write down in concrete specific terms what you offer to your readers (if it's information) or what you want from them (if you are trying to persuade). For example, don't write, "I want to tell them about the Yippahoopy Quadrangle." Write, "I want to tell them that the Yippahoopy Quadrangle is almost certainly the site of a significant meteorite impact during the Early Miocene."
3. Having defined your key ideas, present them at the beginning and - unless the presentation is very short - again at the end.
4. Organize your supporting information in a sequence in which listeners will most likely want it. To do that effectively, you have to know your audience - their technical backgrounds, main interests, and limitations. In the example above, you might present your evidence for the meteorite, offer questions and doubts, describe your field and lab methods, and finally discuss the implications of your findings.
5. Use visual aids that are attractive and highly readable. Never use a visual aid that you have to apologize for. A digital image projector (fed from a laptop or notebook computer and controlled by a "remote mouse") is the most effective projection device.
6. Hold onto your reading material until your talk is finished. The only good handout at the beginning of a presentation is a simple outline, with space between the headings for listeners to take notes.
7. Unless you are speaking in a very large auditorium, eye contact with the audience is important. But even in a vast hall, don't read from a detailed script. If you do, your voice will tend to drop to a monotone, losing its "vocal variety." Use cue cards (or cue yourself from your visuals). And practice! Get feedback from a "guinea pig" audience during dry runs beforehand.
8. Anticipate questions and decide how you'll handle them. Are you going to present anything that is controversial or extremely complex? Some listeners might ask about aspects you did not cover in your talk.
9. If possible, check out the logistics ahead of time - room arrangement, lights and dimmer switches, sound system, visual equipment, and other aids. Find out what assistance will be available, if any. If there is a speakers' breakfast, don't play hooky.
10. If you are the only speaker or if there is no printed program, make sure the emcee knows how you want to be introduced, and has just the information needed to do a good job (including the title of your presentation, if it's a formal talk). A good introduction will establish your credibility with the audience.