Hi there, Christine,

Last week, I participated in an unusual event. It was the first day of a PhD conference and conference organizers asked me to give each presenter feedback on paper so they could improve their presentations before facing larger audiences.
Most people who approach me about presentation training think that they need to learn how to stand or look at the audience or gesture well. I disagree. The thing they usually need work on is content structure and slides. A lot of presentation nerves that lead to talking too fast and hunching over and general presentation nerves are related to a lack of confidence in what we’re presenting. Get your material right and you’ll automatically present with more confidence. That said, there were a number of issues that most presenters faced beause of the physical space. I ended up talking to the whole group for about 5 minutes at the end of the day and sharing some tips they all needed. A lot of them were related to the particular staging of this and many conference situations. It's the podium in the middle with a screen on either side. You can see the monitor for the slides on the floor to the speaker's right in front of the podium. I sat at the table behind the chairs. Below are some of the tips I shared with conference participants!

1. Stand at the podium when you present
This should seem obvious, but only a couple of the 15 presenters actually stood at the podium during their talk. Instead, most of them stood to the right of the podium, often facing the screen on that side of the stage, giving me a great view of their left ear.
The podium is there for you. The lighting folks light the podium (in fact, usually the space above the podium where your body is) so that the presenter who stands there will look great. That means, if you move the podium or move from behind the podium, you move out of the good light! Some people don’t like that they can’t see their audience when the light is right in their faces. I get that. But you are the focus of attention in that moment, not your audience. You’ll have to bear that and stay at the podium!

2. Leave the laser pointer at home
The set-up for this meeting was the same as a lot of conferences. There were two screens. Presenters who used a laser pointer to highlight details on their slides only did that on the slide to their right. Since I was sitting on the other side of the room and there was pillar in my way, I had no idea what they were pointing at. Ideally, your slides are so clear (read that as bare) that the relevant information is all you’ve got up there – so no need for highlighting, pointing out, or laser pointers. However, if you cannot avoid it, put that highlighting circle right on your slide. Use a nice contrasting color to mark the area you want your audience to pay attention to and make it part of the slide that will be presented on both sides of the stage. Your audience will appreciate your effort!

3. Don’t reintroduce yourself
The moderators at this event all read the name of the talk, which was usually a long paper title, the name of the presenter, and their university. A number of speakers got up and said, “Hi, I’m X and I’ll be talking about [repeat paper name].” This isn’t necessary and I think they didn’t even realize they were doing it until I pointed it out at the end. These speakers had 7 minutes each to talk about complex topics. They wasted a good 30 seconds getting their titles out again and it wasn’t engaging for the audience. Accept your introduction, say thank you, and then engage with your audience.

4. Take a deep breath
But before you launch into your talk, take a deep breath. It’s tempting to walk on to stage, get to your spot, thank the moderator, and launch into your talk. What usually happens is that speakers then race into their material. Instead, take a moment to look out at your audience and take a deep breath. Own your space, take your moment. You did a lot of work to get up on that stage and even if you’re in danger of being taken down by nerves, you deserve a moment to enjoy where you are. In terms of presentation skills, you also need to slow yourself down. Your body is in motion from getting up on stage, the nerves are killer, and you will launch into your talk unless you stop for just a moment. Take a deep breath and let your body and emotions slow down before you start delivering you talk.

5. The audience can’t see the bottom 1/3 of your slide
A few presenters had the major message on their slides at the bottom. In front of their computer it made sense, they introduced some information and ended with a conclusion. Unfortunately, I’m a bit short by Dutch standards and was also sitting behind the fourth row of seats. Anything on the bottom 1/3 of the slides was hard for me to read.
If you’re creating a slide presentation for your talk, avoid putting meaningful material on the bottom 1/3 of the slide. That doesn’t mean you can’t put a scientific reference down there or an image credit. But if it’s your central problem or a conclusion you want your audience to take home with them, make sure it’s high and visible!

6. It isn’t a treasure hunt: start with the golden egg
A surprising number of presentations I saw on Friday had astounding information in the last two or three slides. One was a genetic variation in a disease that seemed to make the difference between surviving the disease or not. These aren’t things to give your audience as treats at the end of a long presentation. Lead with this material, it’s absolutely golden. The presentation that caught my attention the most was the one that started with a promise to tell me how they could do less work, save a lot of money, and help patients better. I’m not even a doctor or researcher and I care about that! There’s a structure that most researchers use where they introduce or describe a phenomenon, talk about the questions they posed, describe their methods, and then talk about the results. Essentially, they ask their audience to hold their breaths for the prize at the end. Don’t do it. Tell your audience if there’s a great bit of news coming. They’ll hang in there to hear all the details. Next time you’re presenting, I hope you’ll keep some of these tips in mind! If it helps out, let me know! I’d love to share your success story with others. On my blog last week, I posted an article about the turning point in your story. It’s a crucial part of your story structure to bring your audience along with you and to introduce tension.


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P.P.S. I’m on Facebook Live every Thursday at 15:00 CET. Come by or watch the recording later. I’d love to be answering your questions there, so please send them in.