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5 Steps to a Kick-Ass Presentation


In my yearlong exploration of science communication, I focused on learning more about communication in the forms of: storytelling, presenting, and design. Here I focus on the skills I have found to be useful in creating impactful presentations.

Great presentations are to the point, easy to follow, and contain purposeful elements that subvert the curse of knowledge. They are engaging… make you want to listen. As Nancy Duarte points out in the HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations, “People don’t fall asleep during conversations but they do during presentations.” This is because many presentations are not conversational. Skilled presenters attend to both style and substance and are able to intertwine these aspects to motivate, surprise, and inform the audience. There’s a lot more to presenting and communicating research findings than we are taught in graduate school.

Whether your audience is a group of academics, policy makers, or the general public, it is likely that they do not know your area of research as well as you do and will need context to better understand your message. Like the whistlers of tunes that others cannot guess in the Heath brothersMade to Stick, it’s hard to not to know what we know, but with thought, experience, and planning this cognitive bias can be overcome.

Also note that nerves are unlikely to have a negative impact on your talk. As Chris Anderson explains in “How to Give a Killer Presentation,” “nerves are not a disaster.” Similarly, Scott Berkun points out in Confessions of a Public Speaker that audiences are forgiving and want the speaker to do well. Take advantage of this, expect to be nervous if the stakes are high, but use this energy to motivate and focus your efforts already put forward to develop your kick-ass presentation:

1. Frame Your Ideas. Your talk should have a narrative structure: a beginning, middle, and an end.  The “and, but, therefore” format highlighted by Randy Olson in “Science Communication: Narratively Speaking” and by Erika McPhee-Shaw on this blog creates a shape that conveys tension and resolution.

2. Know Your Audience. How do you know if you really know your audience? Berkun offers advice on how to draw this conclusion: find out why your audience is at the event, what their needs are, and what they can expect to take from your talk. Knowing your audience is humbling. It means putting their interests first and presenting material they can use one day. Not knowing your audience can make your talk memorable for reasons that have nothing to do with your message.

3. Tell Stories. Stories inspire, help you to connect with your audience, and make your message memorable. As Annette Simmons writes in The Story Factor, “You can entice, inspire, cajole, stimulate, or fascinate but you cannot make anyone listen to anything. Embracing this fact up front lets us focus on what we can do.” We can create interest and curiosity and catch and hold someone’s attention with story. As the Heath brothers note, “Stories can almost single-handedly defeat the curse of knowledge.” For more on how to do this, read my previous posts on storytelling tipspractice, and prompts.

4. Organize, Shape, and Structure Your Content. According to Duarte, when creating your slides you want to think like a designer. Your slides should be clear of clutter, include ample amounts of white space, and contain only one idea per slide. Your slides should be of uniform style, creating a visual unity that makes your message feel cohesive. Individually, they should be of a form that people can “get” in 3 seconds. When structuring your content, make sure your audience knows your plan. In your outline avoid the categories of “introduction,” “results” and others you’d see in a refereed paper. Finally, build (simple) animation into your talk. Your audience will either listen to you speak or read your slides. Animation allows you to control your pace and keeps the audience on task.

5. Practice!!! In his book How to Deliver a TED Talk Jeremey Donovan points out that none of the hundreds of great TED speakers that he interviewed were “natural speakers.” They all practiced more than anyone else, and as Garr Reynolds emphasizes in The Naked Presenter, they were persistent.  You want to practice out loud, and, as uncomfortable as this might be, in front of a mirror or on videotape. Listen for filler words like “um,” “yes,” or others you repeat often to bridge sentences and ideas.  Donvan recommends the “burst-and-pause” method to rid your speech of these words.  Here the pauses replace filler words and give the audience time to absorb your meaning.

Finally, good presentations don’t provide commentary: don’t tell the audience why you’re doing something, why you haven’t prepared or what you should have done. This distracts from your message and more importantly takes away valuable seconds or minutes that you could have used in a more valuable way.

Jill Caviglia-Harris, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a professor of economics at Salisbury University. Follow her on Twitter (@JCavigliaHarris) and read more about her work on deforestation and poverty.