We’ve all sat through boring presentations where the presenter reads the slides, shows barely-legible tables and graphs, and goes over time—many of us have probably given bad, boring presentations. In research and academic circles, we tend to excuse bad presentations by pointing out that we’re not designers and that making a “pretty” presentation takes time away from the important work of conducting the research and writing the paper. But presentations are a unique opportunity to share our findings, in which we have a captive audience ready to hear what we’re working on. We should not squander this opportunity—and in reality, marginally more time spent thinking through a presentation can have an outsized payoff in terms of audience engagement and excitement about your work.
In my new book, Better Presentations: A Guide for Scholars, Researchers and Wonks, I explain how to create, design, and deliver an effective presentation. In it, I define three guiding principles that you can use to design and deliver better presentations.
1. First, visualize your content. Studies have consistently shown that we better comprehend and retain information when we have pictures to accompany or replace text. As a presenter, you can harness the power of pictures to create well-designed slides and better data visualizations to help your audience remember and understand more of what you say.
2. Second, unify the elements of your presentation. This means consistency in colors and fonts, in the formatting of your slides, and in integrating what you say with what you show on the screen. Slide design is not about “dumbing down” your presentation or sacrificing content in the name of making things “pop”; it’s about using color, images, and layout to help structure information that help the audience better understand your work. Your presentation slides are there to support you, not supplant you.
3. Finally, focus your audience’s attention on your specific argument. Instead of putting up as much information as possible on every slide (which many presenters do because it’s easy and it reminds them to cover each point), keep your slides simple and free of clutter so that you can direct your audience’s attention to where you want it at all times.
These three principles all aim to facilitate the audience’s quick and easy acquisition of information. By designing high-quality slides and pairing your spoken word with those visuals, your audience can focus on what’s really important—your content and your message— rather than using their energy and attention trying to decipher what’s on the screen and how it relates to what you are trying to say.
Want to learn more about presenting effectively? Pick up my new book Better Presentations: A Guide for Scholars, Researchers and Wonks, and check out the Better Presentations website where you can download PowerPoint files, icons, and learn more from a host of great resources.