How to give a presentation that bores your audience, giving a rubbish impression of you and your research

How many presentations have you been to in conferences, seminars, student assessments, where even 5 minutes afterwards, you struggle to remember anything interesting? Perhaps even anything at all? For me the answer is: far too many. What’s worse perhaps, is not leaving a presentation with nothing, but leaving with a negative impression of the research or researcher. Such impressions tend to be quite sticky and hard to dislodge (they leap back into life when you see something written by that person, or see their name in the conference program again and think: avoid like the plague!).
There’s plenty of stuff out there on presentations. I’m not claiming anything particularly original here: just my way of getting stuff off my chest in a way I hope is useful.

1. Don’t rehearse your presentation, just assume it will all run to time

A perfect way to give your audience nothing valuable to remember you by, or to irritate them, is to get to 2 minutes before the end of your allotted speaking time, and then to reach the point (slide, usually), where you say: “So my aims / research questions are…”. Well done. You’ve spent 90% of the time telling me about the background, what other people have done. I don’t care. I want to know what you have done. Sure a bit of ‘why is this important’ is useful. But don’t assume I share your passion for knowing everything that’s been done before in your field. If I’m in your field, chances are I know that already. If I’m not, I’m interested in you and your ideas more than all that context, existing research stuff. I’ve come to your session on the promise I will hear something new. Don’t cheat me by spending the whole time on stuff that is already out there. I want my money back.

2. Allow your talk to take up all the time for discussion

After all, we came to hear and watch you, right? Well, to the extent that I want to hear you say something new, yes. But not to the extent where I think you have the right to intrude onto interactive discussion time, just because your time keeping is so poor (or your preparation was so awful) that you’ve only just started talking about the interesting things. Tough! You’ve had your time (and you wasted it), it’s my time now. The impression this leaves me with (apart from your woeful timeliness), is that you don’t actually respect me or the rest of your audience: what you have to say is too important to give time and space to those poor people who’ve just suffered your endless presentation.

3. Design too many slides

You’ve got 80 slides for a 20 minute presentation. Ooh! You’ve been working hard. WRONG. You’ve been working poorly, and without due thought for your presentation and accompanying visual material. As you keep adding new slides, because there’s another point that you simply have to make, consider me in your audience: when you load up your presentation, I see ‘slide 1 of 57’ and my stomach sinks. I’m getting an ulcer already. I’m thinking ‘this loser doesn’t care one iota for my wellbeing. S/he is actively out to destroy my enjoyment of this session’. You’ve put me on the wrong footing before you’ve even started. I’m sat there plotting the nastiest possible question or comment I could make, on the (seemingly improbable) off-chance there is any time for discussion left after you’ve finished your marathon of what I’m now expecting will be verbal diarrhoea. With any luck the reasonable and ethical academic in me will hold back from giving you what you deserve. But do you really want to be on such thin ice?

4. Design boring slides

You’re not a techno-wiz, so you let PowerPoint seduce you into thinking we all love slides full of black text on a white page. After all, you’re so busy, and good visuals are really for arty types:  your job is to think and write. NO! If you’re using visual aids, then make them visual. Ask yourself: what are the images I can remember from presentations I have seen? I’m guessing the most useful, informative and memorable ones are not those with 100s of words, or (worse, see below), bullet points. If all your text is the same size, it says to me all the words and sentences are of equal importance. This may be the case sometimes. But in EVERY slide? Come on.

5. Use bullet lists when they are not appropriate

Did people use so many bullet points when we used overhead projectors and acetate? I’ve suffered death by bullet-point hundreds of times. And it only gets more painful with the repetition. They tend to come hand-in-hand with the sins of multitudinous slides and boring visuals. A bullet list says to me: these are a bunch of things that are related under a single topic, but they are in no particular hierarchical order, and they are all as important as each other. I’m assuming, if you’ve used a bullet list, that there’s no possible alternative way of illustrating the relationship between those things. So either, they all get the same treatment from you in terms of talk time (in which case this is going to be a loooooong slide, with no visual variation to help me through it), or you’re going to talk at length about one, and then rush through or ignore the rest, which isn’t consistent with the message that they’re all equally important.

6. Treat your audience like they are not worthy of what you know to be decent practice

“I know there’s too much on this slide and it’s impossible to read but…”. I’ve heard this dozens of times. From people who are telling me they know better. My thoughts when this happens are: if you know this is a bad slide, why are you showing it? The answers I come up with are:

You were too lazy to do a better one

You didn’t think this presentation was important enough to warrant more time in preparation; by extension this means you don’t really value me as an audience member

You know it’s bad but don’t know how to make it better; fine, we’re not all born knowing everything, but if we’re going to inflict ourselves on an audience, and we don’t know what we’re doing, we have an obligation to ask for assistance, learn, or stick to modes of address we are competent in

You haven’t done enough (or the right kind of) hard graft in terms of thinking through what you need to say, and what your audience wants to know; crappy slides full of too much information reek of ‘it’s all too important to miss out’, which reflects sloppy thinking at best

You think it’s fine for those up near the front to read what is on screen, but for those at the back to miss out. Presumably this is because the information isn’t that important. Or you don’t care about all of your audience, only the ones with sharp eyes and a tendency to sit near the screen.

7. Stand and read out the content on your slides

It’s fair to assume your audience is illiterate, so you’re doing them a great favour by reading the text that is in front of them. OR… your audience can read, but the text is so small (see above) that they’ve no chance of seeing it, unless they brought a telescope with them. So you’re doing those who forgot their telescopes a great service by reading it out. Given the text is so small, this is going to take some time. Yawn (with feelings of irritation and boredom now reaching critically acute levels). Either give me some time (and remember: silence is golden; see below) to read it myself, or give me something else worth looking at on screen.

8. Spend the first 10 minutes telling me what you’re about to say and other irrelevant rubbish / lies

It’s 10 minutes in, I’ve heard about your love of dogs, the history of your professional career including the paper-round you did as a teenager, and then you’ve talked through a bullet list of what you’re going to say. Unless this kind of signposting is really needed because you’ve got some complex structural things going on, my feeling is don’t bother. When I think of the times I’ve sat through this rigmarole, I realise most of it is lies anyway:

You don’t start by saying “I’ll start this presentation with an irrelevant and endless aside and then bore you with telling you about the structure of the talk” – you pretend that hasn’t just happened.

You don’t then say “While there are lots of important things I’d like to tell you about what I’ve been doing and thinking, I’m actually going to spend 90% of the time telling you what others have done” – even though this is seeming rather likely.

You don’t then say “Although discussion is central to academic work, and I respect you as my audience and want to hear from you, I’m going to ignore the time limits, and the chair, and keep talking until all the time is used”. Or, “I’m terrified of harsh questions so will avoid the chance by talking my way through the discussion time”.

If you have to give a structural overview (and think carefully about why this might be necessary), do it quickly. And don’t use bullets. If all your points come in no logical order and are of equal weight then you’ve no need to tell us what the structure is. This kind of structural overview reflects the need to communicate something more complex: by definition a bullet list is inappropriate.

9. Make a sloppy, half-hearted attempt to jazz up your slides

Irritating animations. Unexplained acronyms. Graphs I can’t read. Pointless clipart. Ugh! Just because you’ve now put a picture on your otherwise bland, over-full, and boring slide (usually next to an irrelevant bullet list) doesn’t make it a visual stunner. It says: I know slides are supposed to be visually interesting, but I can’t be bothered to do it properly, so here’s a picture of [insert random semi-related image here]. You think your wonderful animations tell me: I’ve been learning powerpoint, give me a medal! I can make the text come in letter by letter! No. Your ridiculous animations tell me: I have no idea how to approach effective use of technology and am duping myself that by learning some functions and automatically putting them into my presentation, I’m doing a great job.

10. You forget that your words are important, and that silence is golden

Not a contradiction, but I’m running out of slots in my top 10. Crap visual aids can encourage laziness in your audience (oh yes, I’m no paragon of an academic listener. I need all the help I can get to actually pay attention to what you’re saying). If your slides are full of text then I start reading and stop listening. Deliberately playing around with these things can be fun and effective: putting a bunch of unexplained acronyms on a screen and pretending everyone knows what they mean can give your sleepy audience a wake-up call, and make them listen to what you have to say. Absence of words on slides can help attune your audiences’ ears to you. Not a bad thing perhaps.

What of silence? How could you possibly have time to stop talking, given you’ve so much to say in such a short time. No! Silence is golden. It gives weight to what you just said (see: no contradiction with the idea that your words are important). It says [in silence]: just let that last comment land, have a think, it’s important. It also allows you to breathe, and (surprise!) check the time to see how you’re doing. You can also make eye contact with your audience, see who’s asleep, who’s grinding their teeth or putting their intellectual knuckle-dusters on / loading the shotgun full of nasty-question bullets (one for every bullet in your presentation, maybe). It gives your audience a chance to actually look at what’s on the screen, and then makes your voice (when you start speaking again), give them a change of focus. And anyway, a respite from your monotonous, hard-to-hear drawl is probably a relief.

That’s it. I could probably do a top 100 and still have things to comment on that have irritated, bored and exasperated me in the past. This is not fiction: this is borne of what I experience time and again from people who should, and do, know better. Final take-home rules that I use (by no means rules for everyone):

  1. 3 slides for 10 minute talk (and keep similar ratio as talk time gets longer)
  2. No bullets
  3. Max 30 words per slide
  4. No bullets
  5. Rehearse
  6. No bullets
  7. Plan to say less than you want to. Accept it.
  8. Did I mention no bullets?
  9. Don’t read out text verbatim: it’s very hard for listeners to follow speech from written text (tends to have lots of subclauses, no erms, ums etc, which give listeners a pause); I know this is common in philosophy and other humanities, but I find I drift off and learn almost nothing, and ask myself: why not just give me the paper and be done with it?
  10. No bullets (unless there really is no other or better way to express the relationship between several ideas).

As usual, I’ve been a bit flippant and black-and-white here. Do you agree with what I’ve said? Have you had similar experiences?

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27 thoughts on “How to give a presentation that bores your audience, giving a rubbish impression of you and your research

  1. Fiona

    Yes, great points, and the summary is helpful.
    I did a presentation recently and was soooo very ready for question time and feedback, I was hoping to get some new directions or thoughts, but all I got was feedback on how they loved the presentation technique.

    That was good because I had spent ages on the presentation and it was rather an experiment of a presentation type performance of my theoretical research (I have a digital media background). However I got the feeling that perhaps the points were missed anyway.

    I think what I learnt from that is that it is possible to overdo it too. In this case I didnt get the feedback where I needed it.

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Hmm – an interesting point. Yes I guess you don’t want to dazzle everyone so much they lose sight of the content.
      I find that the feedback / engagement you want, and the feedback / engagement you get are normally 2 quite different things.
      And there is nearly always the arsehole who takes ages phrasing their ‘question’ which essentially amounts to: hey look I’ve read heaps of (eg. Foucault), and so why aren’t you doing your study the way I would…

      Reply
      1. teigank

        i recently gave a paper in prague and as it was on virtual travel i used footage of travelling – planes, trains and automobiles – playing in the background. i got a lot of positive feedback about this.
        I also stood up where many sat and read their papers.
        I think it is really hard to listen to someone reading a paper no matter how interesting.
        I think the number one important point is rehearing in front of a mirror and memorising sections before presenting
        ps I dislike powerpoints and the conference i just attended banned them…..

  2. tony

    I read this post from the perspective of a presentation recipient and presenter. All too much of what you write rings a chord with me and I nod in recognition of what you outline from my experiences sitting in far too many audiences, but I also cringe as I think back about the times that I have been guilty of some of these things!
    But lifting my focus above that, I wonder what is an effective way of presenting research or ideas in what has become cramped sessions of three presenters, with 20 minutes each. I’ve come to see others who adopt a sort of superior scoffing at powerpoint (they are too cool to use such a mass-produced, reductionist software). Instead they refer to their single piece of paper, or sometimes nothing at all, with handwritten dot-points and launch into their spiel. There is no obvious evidence of structure or outline, and sometimes that outline slide in the ppt might give cause for concern to the audience but it at least indicates there is some structure and you can see what is being planned. What follows can be a meandering, organic, stream of consciousness.
    So given an appreciation of the limitations of ppt, and attempts to take into account steps to improve the presentation (not too many slides, not too many dot-points, readable font, inclusion of images, etc etc) how can it, or other equivalent software, be used in a way that does convey meaning and assist the audience in understanding what you want to get across? This seems to me to be an interesting challenge.

    Reply
  3. Kate and Janna

    We particularly like point number 6. None of these ideas are particularly revolutionary, yet we all do them! With presentations coming up for us next week this has been a welcome reminder that it is all too easy to create a cliched presentation and as a result, lose your audience. Thank you for your humourosly presented reminders.

    Reply
  4. Emily

    I feel that many of your points are very relevant. I am someone who automatically tunes out whenever a PowerPoint presentation occurs where there are thousands of slides with a ridiculous amount of text (written in tiny font!)
    It would be wonderful if more people focused on their presentation style rather than fitting as much information as they can onto each slide.

    Reply
  5. Aikka

    I just had a group presentation today, and I think I’ve fallen (AGAIN!) to some of the categories you’ve mentioned about boring presentations. I agree with your point of never wanting to leave a negative impression of your presentation or your research. No matter how much I have prepared and practice, that fear seems to takeover and leave me a complete nervous wreck during the actual presentation. Do you have any tips on calming yourself down 10 minutes before? This was a great read and very helpful, thank you!

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Thanks for your comment, and great question!
      My tip would be to do some controlled, deep breathing before you present. I’d actually suggest taking a couple of deep breaths during the presentation, each time you change slides / turn a page. This helps give the audience a pause (maybe to read a slide), and also helps you feel in control, avoid rushing, monitor how you’re doing and make decisions about the level of detail to go into for the next few minutes.

      In terms of calming nerves, something I learned through freediving is that breathing is an astonishingly powerful tool for inducing calm and slower heart rates. Start drawing in from your stomach, draw air down so your belly button goes out. Then gradually fill your chest, feel yourself sitting / standing straight. Hold your full lungs briefly, and exhale slowly. Try for 4 seconds inhale, 2 sec pause, and 8-10 seconds exhale. Just 3 cycles of this should help you feel more relaxed.

      Reply
  6. Peter Ryburn

    If the snoring in the last presentation wasn’t enough of a hint in itself, this piece is a helpful reminder.
    Love the way that you approached this topic Nick. Very thought provoking, engaging and relevant. Will endeavour to employ some of these principles in future presentations.

    Reply
  7. rusty (@mativity)

    I’d like to make a comment from the perspective of someone who is very visually-oriented. I have been a lecturer for about 15 years, mainly in an environment where powerpoint is not used – the old blackboard is available, though, as is a whiteboard and walls for sticking up prints, posters etc, In other words, quite old-fashioned.

    I don’t talk with notes, though I always prepare an outline for myself, but I usually write keywords, quotes or specific points on the board and even draw models or diagrams or images on the blackboard, as I lecture. Not only do my words being put into action in front of the audience, but it gives the audience moments of silence to think about what I’m writing, formulate questions or just ponder. It also helps me focus on the key themes and not get lost in rambling.

    I decided to use this approach after finding it far more accessible to me as a listener, than lectures without any visual content, which I find difficult to impossible to follow; or worse, lectures where the presenter has powerpoint slides with text but their spoken words don’t closely relate the the slide. I cannot process the spoken word very well, especially if the speaker isn’t clear, fluent and fairly tempoed in their pace; so for me, I actually find it an aid to processing the audio if the presenter reads out some of the textual content on the slides. I don’t’ mean slavishly, word for word, every slide; but people who show a slide with more than a few lines or 20 words on it, and then talk about something else or develop the theme without any keywords being on the slides, make it very difficult for me to follow their train of thought. Also, I find presenters who read out key quotes or points that are on their slides can give the words far more weightiness and meaning than if they just leave it there for you to read. If they start talking about what it means to them and how it relates to their work, I’m meanwhile trying to block out their words so I can comprehend the written text visually! No, I am not classified as having a major disability – I’m simply a visual learner.

    German artist and teacher Joseph Beuys used elements of the approach I described above in my first paragraph. I also attended a conference on creativity and cognition recently where the presenter drew conceptual sketches of his key points on large pieces of paper pinned on the walls. The whole audience was strongly engaged and active with him throughout the 80 miuntes. This borders on performance art, I know, but it some performance elements make for better presentations than purely “academic” ones.

    Reply
  8. Deborah Lupton

    I like bullet points – I use them to very briefly summarise the ideas that I am discussing and to add as a memory aid so that I don’t have to read the paper but can look directly at the audience as I speak. Reduces wordiness, condenses the main points.

    Reply
  9. Jen

    This is a great piece, and I have often thought many of these things – the poor timing and overrunning in particular, we all must know by now that you only have 20 mins so plan accordingly.
    I often find myself worrying about my slides (if I use them) and was interested by your comments on visuals – what do people think are good visuals to have on a slide? I rarely use clip art but try to use images from the time period I work on that illustrate points or make things clearer. What does everybody else do??

    Reply
      1. nickhopwood Post author

        Hi Richardsonfoster
        Thanks for your comment. I find it helpful to think on pen and paper first – then recreate on a slide.
        Do the 4 (or 3 or 5 or whatever) points come in sequence? Ie is one necessarily before the other?
        Do they form a cycle?
        Are they a hierarchy, subsuming or coming under each other?
        Do they all converge on a single point like branches going to a trunk?
        Are they all coming out of a single point, like waves diffracting?

        Each of these suggests alternative forms of visual representation – of course there’s almost infinite others!

  10. Pingback: » The craft of giving (bad) presentations The Sociological Imagination

  11. Vicky Teinaki (@vickytnz)

    I agree with all of these … except for perhaps the number of slides thing. However, that’s because I’m a designer, and at design conferences (or even academic conferences related to design) a speaker may often have 40 slides for a 20 minute presentation. However, many of the slides will either be just an image with minimal text, or even be a series of bullet point spread out (better than worrying about transitions and things going wrong). If you only have one idea per slide, and are prepared to go at a gallop on some bits, lots of slides is fine. (Of course, this is only assured by practising and all the other points).

    Reply
  12. Brian

    Hi Nick, I stumbled onto this post somewhat fortuitously as I sit here trying to finalize my presentation for my first conference next week. I can handle most things, but I don’t want to be boring. Especially when one or two of the other presenters have been cited in my master’s paper. Oh well, here I go…

    Reply
  13. Pingback: Advice for first-time conference presenters | In Thirteenth Century England

  14. Hannah Tweed

    I used to make a point about never reading longer quotations from slides, re: point 7, until I was challenged on it by a friend with a visual impairment, who argued in favour of reading the key sections necessary to your argument, because you never know who in your audience may have a disability. This is also useful for assessing the time your presentation takes in the event of a tech fault. Thoughts?

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Hi Hannah.

      Thanks for your comment. You raise a really important point. Accessibility for audience members. This is something I admit I need to think more about. And I think it goes wider than visual impairment, but also hearing impairment, and to an extent addressing audiences who do not share whatever language the presentation is as a first language: it all comes down to ensuring the medium and delivery are accessible to who is in the crowd.

      With regard to reading out long quotes from slides, in a conference presentation I have not yet found the need to put something up that I will read out verbatim. If a text is precise and wonderful and meaningful enough to be read out, it will usually be more than the 25-30 words limit for a slide; so I might put a key word or two up, or even (perish the thought!) press ‘.’ and make the screen go blank for a while so people can really listen. In a workshop, I have given quotations out to participants to read out, and have recently adopted the practice of putting abbreviated versions on screen with key words highlighted, as an accompaniment. I see workshops and conference presentations are very different things, so the A/V practices are different. In workshops I would normally encourage participants to let me know of any requirements or things I can do to aid access – for example providing resources in pdf in advance so participants can listen via a speech tool, or print them off enlarged etc.

      This of course raises the question of hearing impairment. I have given presentations at conferences where there has been a sign interpreter – which has been a good prompt for me to slow down my talking anyway! On reflection there is a risk that the way I am advocating slide use would leave someone with difficulty hearing with not much to take from my presentations, if a sign interpreter were not present. That said, I would always have a full written paper available to accompany a conference presentation. I see the presentation as a pitch for the paper, to generate interest and discussion, not a quick spoken or visual version of it.

      You also raise the issue of tech failure. My philosophy is that the talk should work in a power-free environment. The slides add to the presentation but do not carry it. What carries it is the preparation, rehearsal and engaging spoken delivery. At least that is my hope!

      Reply
  15. Judith Barker

    Hi Nick, my husband (recently retired professor) banned his postgrads from reading out their papers, and ran regular sessions about giving conference presentations in which he deliberately made all the mistakes you have mentioned. You are not alone in your approach. I’ve been in work-related meetings where I’ve longed to put up my hand and say “Excuse me, but we can all read” when yet another Trainer reads their slides out. Never quite had the nerve, British fear of embarrassing someone else.

    Reply
  16. nuvofelt

    Great points!

    I can’t say that it’s right or wrong, but as a public speaker I decided a long time ago – NO SLIDES!
    No reason to pull the curtains and keep everyone in the dark
    No chance for anyone to fall asleep if they are made to participate via items passed around.

    Always remember that probably half the room wish they were somewhere else.

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Hi Nuvofelt

      Thanks for your comments! I think no slides can be amazing (providing it is not just reading a paper out loud, which I find frustrating as an audience member)… and yes, there is lots going on behind the eyes/ears of the audience (wishing they were elsewhere, emails, dreams – I’ve done a post on this that you might like!)

      Reply

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