The presentation

Seminar Presentations Made Easy
How to Put an Audience to Sleep in Five Minutes

W. Hallett

Dr. Hallett recently gave a talk on this topic and his slides are here.   More detailed tips are below.

1. Organization/Preparation

1.1 Perspective/Objectives

Preparing a seminar begins by defining your audience: who are they? what do they already know? what do you want them to learn? to remember? what are the most important things to communicate about your work? Reflecting on these questions should lead you to define learning objectives for your seminar: you should identify a few key points about your work which you want your audience to remember, and then structure the seminar so that your audience will actually learn and remember them.  For graduate seminars, it is important to realize that a large proportion of your audience may be working in a very different research area and therefore may not be familiar with even the fundamentals of your topic. You should therefore be careful to keep the seminar at a reasonably general level, without of course sacrificing the essential research contribution of your work. A good rule is that at least one-third of your seminar should be on a level that will be readily understood by a senior undergraduate student. This can be even more true for presentations to industry, in which the audience may include management or sales people who have very little knowledge of engineering principles. For conference presentations, of course, where most of the audience are specialists, a high level of prior knowledge can be assumed.

1.2 Organization

The basic structure for a seminar is similar to that for a report or a thesis. It commences with an Introduction, which states the topic and objectives of the work, and gives some general background. Next follows the main body, broken up into major topics: a common sequence is Theory, Experiments, Results. At the end the main points, lessons learned, and recommendations for future work are summed up in Conclusions. An Acknowledgements slide should follow, in which you thank others who assisted you: supervisor, colleagues, technicians, and funding agencies.  Organize all your material in terms of slides. Make an outline with main topics and subtopics, which should be numbered (e.g. 1, 2, 3 … for the main topics, 1.1, 1.2, 1.3…. for subtopics, 1.1.1, 1.1.2 … if further divisions are required). Each subtopic should have at least one separate slide devoted to it, and each slide presented should have a definite purpose. Do not cover more than one topic on a single slide. A useful technique is to start by scribbling points on scrap paper, one sheet to each slide.

Some people like to start a seminar by giving an outline of the topics to be covered. Many audience members will consider this a waste of time, but some speakers find it a useful tool to help them to start and calm their nerves.

1.3 Selection of Material

A major issue in most research seminars is that of distilling two to five years of work and a thick thesis into the 20 minutes allotted. Some points to consider in making this selection:

  • illustrate the main points of your work only; avoid minor details
  • focus on what is new and original about your work
  • describe important concepts in terms of basic processes familiar to your audience
  • give representative results only – every graph that you show must have a specific purpose
  • provide background information if material is likely to be unfamiliar to your audience
  • mathematics – use only essential equations, avoid derivations. Mathematics in general is very difficult to present, and must be thought through carefully.

Avoid large numbers of slides. You should allow 1 minute for most slides, more for slides with a lot of detailed information. 20 – 30 slides is about right for a 20 minute seminar. If your presentation is too long, check that each slide serves a purpose: if you cannot identify a specific purpose for a slide that makes it uniquely important, it should be deleted or combined with another. Prioritize each topic, delete the lower priority ones. Don’t get bogged down in details.  Remember that the amount that your audience learns is NOT proportional to the amount of information you deliver! At some point, an audience becomes saturated with information and cannot learn more. You should know this all too well from years of attending lectures!

2. Graphics

Here are some guidelines for preparing slides. You should plan your slides so that they can also be your notes for speaking: avoid if possible using written notes in the presentation. Visibility is essential: you should be able to read your slides easily at a distance of 6 times the screen diagonal from the computer (2 – 3 m for an average monitor).

2.1 Layout

Slides should have a clean, uncluttered look. Leave blank space around blocks of text or figures to focus attention on individual points. Each slide should have a title, and headings and subheadings should be numbered to correspond to your outline: this keeps the audience focussed on the organization of your presentation. Avoid busy backgrounds and gadgets such as animation. A standard University of Ottawa Powerpoint template is available if you wish to use it, but is not mandatory.

2.2 Text

The font size should be chosen so that the lettering height is at least 3% of the height of the slide: an 18 or 20 pt font at the minimum. You should not have more than about 12 lines of text on a single slide. A Roman font is the easiest to read – this is why virtually all books and newspapers are printed this way. Use lower case letters (CAPITALS LOOK TOO BUSY, as this example shows). Use a minimum number of words – the audience is supposed to listen to you, and if you give them a lot to read they will be distracted.  Avoid tables unless absolutely necessary. It takes an audience a long time to read values from a table, and if you are going to present one you must be prepared to spend a good deal of time on it.

2.3 Colours

Choose colours to give a good contrast for text (black or blue letters on white background, or white or yellow on dark background works best). Avoid reds and fluorescent colours. The rendering of colours can change a lot between different projectors and computer screens, so don’t use colours that are similar in hue. Note that a substantial proportion of the population is red/green colour blind: avoid using these two colours together when you are trying to achieve a contrast.

2.4 Figures/Graphs

All diagrams should be as large as possible and should clearly show the specific items that you want to discuss. They should be edited to remove all non-essential information (such as dimensions, or labels of parts that you will not be discussing). This is particularly true of diagrams of equipment: a schematic drawing that shows the essential elements is much better than, for example, a workshop drawing filled with dimensions and instructions. Figures (particularly graphs) with a lot of information should preferably fill most of one slide (and it follows that you will not show more than one such figure on a slide unless absolutely necessary).  Beware of low-resolution JPEG’s downloaded from the web: you may have to clean them up or re-draw them to make them clearly visible.  Avoid using legends or keys to identify items on a diagram or graph; instead, label them directly. It takes an audience a long time to read a legend and find the corresponding items in thefigure.

Graphs should be kept simple: don’t put too many variables on one graph. The axes should be clearly labelled, but with a minimum of numbers on the scale. All lettering should be horizontal.  Gridlines should be removed to make the graph cleaner in appearance. Graphs should follow the normal convention: points represent individual experimental measurements, while lines represent quantities which vary continuously (usually the results of theory). Do not show a continuous line as a series of points, and do not join individual data points with lines. Because the graphs that Excel or Quattro produces violate most of these rules, you will have to modify them after plotting.

Finally, every figure should have a title.

2.5 Crediting sources

Any graphic that has been taken from another source must be credited in a reference at the bottom of the figure. The same considerations apply here as in a written report: if you do not reference non-original material you are committing plagiarism. If you are distributing print-outs of the slides to your audience you must be careful that you are not violating copyright law by including copyrighted material.

3.Oral Delivery

The requirements for good oral delivery of a presentation are obvious if you see another person doing a poor job of it, but less so when you yourself are the speaker! Some points to keep in mind:

3.1 Speech

You will need to speak more slowly and loudly and articulate words more clearly than you do in ordinary speech. Avoid speaking in a monotone, and don’t use colloquialisms. Face the audience, and make eye contact with different people in your audience. Audiences appreciate a free presentation: speak without reading your notes as much as possible, using the points in your slides as your outline. However, you should avoid memorizing your talk word for word.

3.2 Graphics

Every graph and figure should be introduced (e.g. “this shows x plotted against y at constant z”). Be careful in using laser pointers: some of them are hard to see on the screen, and if you’re nervous they will betray your shaking hands!

3.3 Questions

Your answers to questions should be honest, brief, and stick to the questioner’s point. If you don’t know the answer to a question, be honest about it. As a speaker, audiences will consider you to be an authority on your subject, and you have an ethical responsibility not to give misleading or false information. If you have to deal with a rude or aggressive questioner, remain calm and polite; don’t get drawn into public arguments. It may be useful to repeat a question before answering, as often a part of the audience has not been able to hear it.


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