Vol 6. Issue 17 / May 15, 2006

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Presentations (But Were Afraid to Ask)

By Mika Ono

Jean-luc Doumont makes it look easy. He's up at the front of the room delivering his talk, looking fresh, authoritative, and relaxed. The audience is engaged, laughing at his jokes and nodding when he makes a point. No one is sleeping—not even in the back row. How does he do it?

Luckily, that's the subject of his talk, "Making the Most of Your Presentation," which he shared with more than 70 graduate students, postdocs, faculty, and staff last week as part of the Career Workshop Series on The Scripps Research Institute's La Jolla campus.

"Public speaking is the number one fear in this country—ahead even of death," said Doumont. "Why? The stakes are usually high, it happens in real time, and there is a lack of reference points—what are 'good results'?"

According to Doumont, "good results" are successfully delivering your messages to audience members. Of course, that assumes you have something to say—the first key to a successful talk. Messages, he emphasized, aren't information. Messages are more refined—the conclusion section of your paper rather than your results. While information answers the question "What?," messages answer, "So what?"

"Make sure you have messages," he advised. "Know what your point is—and it shouldn't be how hard the research was. The audience doesn't have to share all the pain and suffering you went through to get results."

Almost as important as having something to say is knowing whom you are saying it to. Who are the individuals in your audience? Are they specialists or generalists? What are their problems? How many people will there be? What do they want to know? How can you help them absorb your messages? Adapt your talk to your audience; don't expect them to adapt to you.

In fact, it was Doumont's understanding of his audience members at Scripps Research that set his talk apart. As an engineer and physicist himself, Doumont was able not only to address challenges of public speaking in general, such as how to handle nervousness, but also those more specific to scientific presentations, such as what constitutes a good graph and the common mistakes of presenting scientific data.

Here are a few tips from his lecture.

On structure:

• Start your talk with an unexpected, yet relevant attention-getter. A joke can be alright—but only if it's relevant. For a scientific audience, a question can often work well. Although you may be tempted to introduce yourself first, put this task off until after you have gotten the audience's attention.

• Don't make the audience wait for your conclusion. Instead, put it near the beginning. "In terms of detective stories, its more like Columbo than Agatha Christie," Doumont said. "It's a theorem-proof approach, not a chronology."

• The body of your talk should be a series of main points, woven together with transitions.

• At the end of your talk, make sure the audience knows it's the end. Don't just run out of things to say. At a scientific conference, one way to close is to express your hope that the audience enjoys the rest of the conference. "I measure the success of the ending of a talk," he noted, "by how little time elapses after the speaker stops talking and before the applause begins."

On visuals:

• Use slides judiciously. "A bad slide is worse than no slide at all," said Doumont.

• Make sure there isn't too much information on each slide. Each slide should have only one message. Legibility can be tested by printing six slides to one page—can you still read them?

• Know what is on your slides so you don't have to turn your back on the audience to look at the screen.

• Put labels directly next to the relevant data on your charts and graphs, instead of using a legend.

• Use titles to convey your message rather than to repeat information already on the slide. For example, instead of titling a pie chart "Distribution of the number of sleep hours for adults," use "Only 28% of adults sleep the recommended 8 hours." One way to do this is to make titles full sentences.

• Don't ask what you can add to a slide, but what you can take away. "Make every drop of ink count," Doumont advised.

• Use effective redundancy. "The audience should be able to get your message by listening to you talk alone or looking at the slide alone, while experiencing synergy if they use both," he said. Doumont suggested rehearsing your talk at least once without slides—it should still make sense. Similarly, someone should be able to look at your slides and be able to pick up your main ideas.

On delivery:

• Don't memorize your presentation word for word. Instead, learn your main points and talk from them.

• Do what you can to eradicate filler words like "um" and "like." Instead, use silence to gather your thoughts. Your audience won't even notice pauses of up to two seconds.

• Vary your tone, speed, and volume depending on your audience and the content of what you are saying at the moment. When you are making an important point, slow down and turn up the volume.

• Don't fidget, rock, or pace. Plant your feet on the ground and use your face, hands, and arms to communicate. The stability of your body will lend stability to your message.

• Look your audience members in the eye. Eye contact is a powerful tool and one that is difficult for people to ignore.

On answering questions:

• Don't forget to listen to the question and take time to think before you answer a question.

• When confronted with a difficult question, be honest and helpful. If you don't know the answer, offer to follow up after the lecture.

• When an audience member is hostile, don't return the hostility. Pause to quiet the atmosphere. Acknowledge the concern at an emotional level. Then go on to disagree with the opinion on an intellectual level. "The audience will be with you if you are being attacked," he said, "but if you return the attack you will lose the audience's support."

On handling nerves:

• Don't be nervous about being nervous. "I want you to be nervous," Doumont said. "It is a symptom of caring. The goal is to channel your nervousness rather than to suppress it."

• Instead of worrying about what will happen if you fail, put your energy into visualizing yourself succeeding.

• Eliminate as much uncertainty as possible. Know the material. Know your audience. Know the room. Doumont himself insists on being in the lecture hall or auditorium a full hour in advance to minimize uncertainty about the venue.

• During the presentation, control your breathing—that is, breathe slowly. If you need to, pause and take a deep breath.

• Focus on your larger purpose.

"And in conclusion," Doumont said, "I wish you the best in your future presentations." It was only a split second before the applause began.

The Career Workshop Series is sponsored by the Society of Fellows, the Postdoctoral Services Office, and the Kellogg School of Science and Technology. For more information on Doumont, see his website at www.principiae.be.


Send comments to: mikaono[at]scripps.edu












"Know what your point is—and it shouldn't be how hard the research was."

—Jean-luc Doumont