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Transferably Yours: Powerful Presentations


Phil Dee is desperately seeking a Ph.D. somewhere in the South West of England. But he knows that it's about more than research. His dispatches from the lab trace his quest to develop the skills that will take him beyond his doctorate and into the world of work.

Have you ever woken up in a cold sweat the night before a presentation? Or do your nerves only start when you're just about to get on your feet to speak? Either way read on; this article could be just the tonic you need. Successful presentations are not just about meticulous preparation of your talk, important as that is. They're also about doing a good 'head-job' on yourself the night before. Let me explain. ...

Remember when you took your driving test or sat your finals? Sure, you needed to be alert and motivated, but if your mental pendulum happened to swing too far in that direction you may have ended up too 'charged-up' to be effective. You may have missed things and made mistakes in your eagerness to succeed. Similarly, if you practised your deep-breathing exercises a little excessively, you may have faced the challenge with a 'devil-may-care' or 'it doesn't really matter, anyway' attitude. I suspect most of us end up in an unhappy no-man's-land between these two extremes. We enter the arena neither motivated nor relaxed: We just get in a bit of a flap. The real trick is to find both states of mind within you and use them simultaneously. I know, I know, this is an unusual concept for us 'fight or flight' creatures--to stand your ground and keep your cool, but with some careful preparation it can be done.

Follow my six-point checklist and, who knows, your presentation could be an enjoyable experience for both you and your audience!

  • Know your stuff. You may wish you could bluff your way through the talk, but take it from me, your lack of reading will be glaringly obvious under the searchlight of a well-phrased question from the audience. The answer: Read it now, don't regret it later. If you really don't have time to read all the papers, scan the abstracts and get the message and the key words. Name-dropping a key word may save your bacon.

  • Choose what to include, and what not to include, in your talk very carefully. Identify your message before you do anything: What, in a nutshell, have you discovered? PhD supervisors aside, it's your talk so tell your own story. If you're honest with yourself and you've listened to your critics, you'll know which of your results are weak and may leave you open to attack if you give too much away. You may not have time in your talk to fully explain yourself so, even if the experiment was your 'baby', be bold enough to skip over it, or even leave it out altogether. If there's a particular aspect of your work that you'd like to receive feedback on, give it a prominent place in your talk. Having seen what you look like, people will approach you afterwards for a chat.

  • Plan an elegant presentation. First tell the audience what you are going to talk about. Then talk about it. Then tell them what you said. To ensure your message gets through, it's essential to make your talk visually interesting. Once their eyes start dropping your message has to rely solely on their ears, and ears don't seem to be hot-wired into the brain in the same way as eyes do. So don't expect them to look for too long at one slide, don't ask them to read too much text, and avoid the pace of your talk being too slow or too fast. Follow the same general rules as for poster design.

  • Make it look professional. Like it or not, science, like many professions, is chock-full of people who won't even pay attention to you unless what you are showing them is up-to-scratch. Produce your presentation in Microsoft PowerPoint. It's the easy-to-use industry standard and PowerPoint projectors are cropping up everywhere nowadays. PowerPoint also obviates the need to 'faff' around mounting fiddly individual slides that always seem to end up upside-down anyway. As a back-up to your disks (don't rely on one), make colour overhead transparencies of your PowerPoint slides.

  • Practise your delivery. Be bold and speak up a bit. To get your timings right, have a few dry runs. This is easy with PowerPoint's 'Rehearse Timings' function. Don't write down exactly what you'll say--you'll only end up reading it and that'll make everyone cringe. Simply print out your own annotated version of each slide with key words highlighted and any extra information you want to say. This way, you won't need to keep finding the right place in your notes--it's right there in front of you in exactly the same format as the presentation the audience is seeing. As you won't spend more than a few seconds finding your place, you'll look as if you're talking off the cuff, with one or two quick glances at your notes. All very professional.

  • OK, now you're well prepared, all you have to do is give your talk. So what about this head-job? Firstly remember that, if you've been given a slot for a short talk, you're only going to be up there for 20 minutes or so. Deciding to be nervous only when those 20 minutes start will help you avoid the tendency to worry beforehand. And by the time you stand up to talk, you'll have too much to think about to worry anymore. Sounds, unlikely? Try it; it's a mental trick that works. Remember, try to be alert and relaxed at the same time. Practise this state of mind before your talk to become familiar with the feeling. Warning: It's so useful for interviews and the like that it can become addictive!

  • So there you have it--six easy steps to successful presentations. Now all you have to do is book your place at that conference!

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