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What makes an effective presentation?

Because of the nature of my job, I have been regularly attending lots of technical presentations given by different parties, including students, professional researchers, faculty members, and university administrators. Also, I regularly teach classes and present technical information in other settings. When sitting in the audience for as little as 5-10 mins, I can usually say with a high degree of certainty “this is a good talk–the presenter is a pro.” But what exactly impels the listener to form such an impression? What makes an effective presentation?

In summary, presenting effectively entails achieving harmony between the presenter, the audience, and the content.

Let’s go over each of these components of an effective presentation.

1.) The Presenter
They say that one cannot separate the message from the messenger, and the presenter is indeed the most important part of any presentation. Presenters posses various level of authority, expertise, eloquence, charisma, language mastery, sense of humor, etc. An effective presenter knows his or her strengths and weaknesses.

For example, making funny jokes on the fly requires that the presenter have a natural affinity for humor, which is rare. I would rather listen to a no frills presentation that gets the point across than suffering through the presenter’s continuous failure to be funny.

An effective presenter should be able to effectively compensate for his or her weaknesses. Not everyone is endowed with natural eloquence. But one can always give a fluent technical presentation by using the appropriate technical terms and grammatical sentences.

It is even possible to compensate for not possessing sufficient technical expertise. Once I was invited to present in front of an audience whose research area was completely different from mine. I made it clear up front that I was coming from a different research community, and was not well informed about their research area. Then I presented the material from my own research perspective, and later was told that my presentation was well-received. Thus, I was able to successfully compensate for my lack of expertise by admitting it up front and not setting any false expectations.

2.) The Audience
An amusing philosophical question “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” has a clear answer with respect to presentations. There is no presentation without an audience. An effective presentation must be tailored to a specific audience that can posses various levels of interest, expertise, friendliness, respect, etc.

Once I attended a technical talk that I thought was very interesting. After the talk, I asked a new international student what he thought. His answer was: “The presenter was talking too fast, and I found it very difficult to understand.”

Although it can be quite difficult to control one’s presentation style, an effective presenter is always mindful of his or her audience. For example, if the audience contains many people for whom English is not their first language, a slower presentation pace and avoidance of big words can improve comprehension significantly. However, it takes real mastery of the material to be able to steer one’s presentation like that.

When it is difficult to predict what kind of audience is expected at a presentation, it is always a good idea to simply to ask the host.

3.) Content
Although oftentimes we do not have much control over which content we get to present, in many instances we can choose the technical depth and breadth of the content to be presented.

An effective presenter always carefully controls the level of sophistication of the presented content. The same technical material can be described at different levels of abstraction. The presented content should be appropriate for both the presenter and the audience. Nothing can be worse than completely losing your audience, as your content is completely above their heads. At the same time, sophisticated audiences can be offended when the presenter does not provide sufficient technical detail.

A really difficult problem is to be able to accommodate an audience possessing vastly different levels of expertise in the subject matter. In that case, a good strategy is to accept that not everyone would be able to keep up with the presentation all the time. Then the content can be presented at a higher abstraction level in the beginning making it accessible to everyone and then some low level details can be presented to the expert part of the audience. As long as the conclusion is accessible to everyone again, it is quite likely that the majority of the audience will be sufficiently accommodated.

Thus, an effective presentation achieves harmony between the presenter, the audience, and the content. The difference between excellent and mediocre presenters is that the former can easily adjust their presentation style and content for a given audience. Few presenters naturally posses this gift. For the rest of us, it is still possible to achieve such harmony through lots and lots of practice.

Categories: academic enterprise
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