Presenting information to a class of students requires significant planning and consideration of standard guidelines for presenting. In any course that contains a substantial lecture component the amount of content we seek to present in-class can seem daunting and make an instructor more likely to make poor choices with regard to the organization or presentation of that material. Slide software like PowerPoint have become the standard tools for presenting, but there are many common mistakes in the use of these tools that can make any presenter risk being ineffective. The suggestions below will help you think about, plan, and deliver more effective presentations regardless of your content area or audience.
The number one complaint audiences have about presentations is presenters “reading the slides.” It seems clear that most people find this unacceptable, yet it persists as a common practice. Any literate audience will read the text on slides faster than they can be spoken aloud, so when using slides the text of the slides should be used to support the speaker’s remarks, the slides should never serve as notes for the speaker - nor should they simply be a summary of the speaker’s remarks.
Other common mistakes include text heavy slides, confusing narratives, distracting animations/transitions, and the use of irrelevant or confusing images.
Planning a Presentation
Planning a successful presentation is more than simply constructing slides, it a process of organizing and structuring information such that it will be accessible to the audience.
Presentations are inherently about communicating some set of information to your audience, and the nature of that information and the makeup of your audience will affect how you will organize your presentations. Establish the goal of your presentation early in your planning so that you can always refer back to your goal while developing your presentation. If a major component of your planning is taking you in a direction that seems incompatible with your stated goal, either your actions or your goal are in need of revisions. As presentations are focused on the transference of information, many goal may simply be phrased in that form (i.e “My goal is for students to understand X”), it can be helpful to always place that information within a context - what do we want our audience to do with that information? A presentation should be more about “giving” information, we want also communicate how that information should change the way in which our audiences thinks or acts.
Constraints are the limits that any project must work within. Basic constraints for any presentation include: the amounts of time, the layout of the room, what you might know about your audience, and access to technology tools. Keep these constraints in mind as you develop your materials; a presentation that relies on twice the time you’ve been allotted or access to resources you won’t have will inevitably fall short.
Working backward from your goal for your presentation, determine the key points for communicating the message mandated by that goal. These key points can be thought of as, concepts, ideas, arguments, or topics - they are essentially the different sets of information you seek to communicate as part of your overall goal. Depending on the nature of your presentation there may be a natural sequencing to your key points or it make careful consideration to determine the ideal ordering. When possible consider the role of a narrative to connect together these different points. If possible consider the amount of time that might be necessary to communicate each key point. Ultimately, once established and organized, these key points become the outline for your presentation and will serve to organize your planning as you construct your slides or other materials.
Rather than starting with slides, your decisions for visuals should come later in the process after you have established your goal, constraints, and key points. Before you jump in and start creating text based slides, start with planning any visuals that will support your key points. This can be graphs, charts, pictures, diagrams - any visual representations of information necessary for communicating your message. Some visual will be simply reusing existing materials, while other may need to be made from scratch. Make sure that you dedicate an appropriate amount of time to planning and selection of these visuals - they can potentially have the most impact in delivering your message and should not be an afterthought.
Slides are not a replacement for a script or presenter notes. Whether you use the notes view in PowerPoint or just jot down notes on paper, establishing a separate script can be helpful in organizing your thoughts as well as a way of avoiding the dreading “reading the slides” misstep in delivering your presentations.
Many presenters provide a printout (or electronic copy) of your slides as handout for audience members. Though there is some value in having a copy of the slides, consider the increased value of a simple one or two page handout. A text based handout is an underused resource that can include a density of information simply not possible in a printout of your slides. A good supplemental handout can serve as a physical object for the audience to take away as well as a valuable resource for giving additional information about a complicated topic. In examining your presentation for materials to include in a handout consider slides with dense information such as charts and graphs, as well as list of additional references or reading an audience member might want to reference. In a classroom setting a handout might include terminology or jargon (particularly with tricky spelling) with or without definition. A popular technique in developing handout for students conceptualized handout not as simply a summary of the presentation but an organization tool for taking notes.
Tips for Visual Design
As you begin constructing and organizing slides it can be helpful early on to give yourself a constraint in terms of the number of slides you can use in your presentation. A common guidelines is 2 minutes per slide, so an hour presentation might be limited to 30 slides. Many presentations use too many slides instead of too few - moving through slides at pace faster than 2 minutes per slide can feel rushed if not carefully rehearsed.
Mixing text and images can make for a more engaging set of slides by alternating the way in which information is communicated throughout your presentation. Presentations that rely too much on text heavy slides run the risk of feeling visually monotonous. Slide after slide of text (especially bullet lists) feel repetitive and can be difficult to follow. If your slides contain an extended sequence of text heavy slides look for opportunities to rework some of those slides to include visuals or graphics illustrate a given point. Though visuals can be powerful tools for communicating information, adding visuals for the sake of decoration or ornamentation (such as clip art) distract from your message and is best avoided.
PowerPoint assume bullet lists as the default standard for organizing text on your slides. Though bullet list have their time and place, they are vastly overused and can cause otherwise delightful and engaging speakers to fall into a teleprompter mode. Bullet lists can cause you to shortcut careful planning about the number of ideas reasonably communicated on a single slide. Perhaps the greatest shortcoming of bullet list is that they are frequently used to display a summary of what the speaker is saying, which can be distracting to the point of disengagement with the speaker. However you are using text based slides in your presentation you want to conceptualize your slides as a combination of slides (what you show) and spoken remarks (what you say) that the audience assembles into a unified message that is greater than the sum of the part.
Most slide programs like PowerPoint and Keynote now include built in color schemes that will ensure readability and generally aesthetics visuals. When assembling your slides try to work within those scheme to maintain simple slides that will be readable. Common mistakes include using too many color on a single slide and using combination of text and background colors that lack the contrast necessary to ensure readability. Placing text over a photo background or a busy texture will also negatively impact the readability.
In addition to using color schemes that will be readable make sure your choices for font and text size will ensure that your slides are readable for any audience. Arial and Helvetica are common simple “sans-serif” fonts that will be highly readable. Fancy, decorative fonts should be sparing if at all. For text size, your slides should use 48-32 pt text if at all possible. Note that this large text size will ensure your slides will be readable and also limit the amount of text you can include on any slide.
Resources & Reading
PowerPoint is Evil Edward Tufte, Wired Magazine, 2003 September.
Successful Lecturing: Presenting Information in Ways That Engage Effective Processing - Patricia Ann deWinstanley, Robert A. Bjork
MGH IHP PowerPoint Template [Intranet page]