I recently commented on the declining quality of academic talks driven by the logic of conference organizers, for whom ‘a presentation’ often means nothing more than a set of slides. We can counteract this decline by taking the preparation of our academic talks more seriously than just parsing pieces of existing writing into bullet points. Preparing a good academic presentation requires a great deal of focused effort which can be divided into three stages with their own mindsets, techniques and software: (1) developing ideas; (2) writing the script and (3) designing visuals.
Preparing your talk should not start with slides, either from old presentations or newly designed. Even if your past talks were excellent, it’s very difficult to enter the same river twice. You will have different audience, different expectations, and different energy. Your old slides might keep your new ideas in a cage and discourage systematic thinking about what exactly you want to say and why. It is even worse to start preparing for a talk you have never delivered before by starting to design the slides. Slides are not about what you want to say, they are about how to say it. And you should really start with ‘what’, not ‘how’.
In the very beginning of preparing for a talk I find it useful to sit down and think it through. Often thinking with good old pen and paper is sufficient, but sometimes mindmapping tools such as MindNode are helpful. For a couple of recent presentations I used Tinderbox. In contrast to most mindmapping apps, it allows non-hierarchical relations between ideas, which are essential for early stages of thinking. Most of the time, I end brainstorming in OmniOutliner – not yet to outline the slides but rather to structure the flow of the talk. At the end of this stage I try to sound the ideas with close colleagues and leave them to ‘cook’ (David Sparks’ term), without making the next step, for a few days or a week.
Write a script
The second stage of preparing a presentation is writing down what I plan to say. When I just started presenting about 15 years ago I would always prepare speaker’s notes in order to counter anxiety about forgetting what I planned to say. At that stage I was strongly influenced by the amazing (pre-PowerPoint) Successful presentations for Dummies book. (It recommends writing down, word-by-word, the most important elements of your talks: the introduction, the bridges between parts, the punch lines, and the conclusion and then learning these by heart.) Then as I became more confident I developed a bad habit of using PowerPoint slides as abbreviated speaker notes. If I did not know what to say next I would look at my slide. Somehow, it did not bother me that the audience would stare at the same lines of text as well and perhaps wonder why am I reading to them if they can read themselves.
Recently I found that scripting really helps to raise the plank for my public speaking. Not surprisingly, the trigger for this re-thinking was a Mac. I ran across several Mac-users who treated their presentations very seriously and very differently from an average PowerPoint user (I wrote the Should PowerPoint be banned? post at that time). As in many other cases, Mac was not merely a tool, it helped to unite people not satisfied with mediocricy.
So why scripting?
First, since writing is a form of thinking, writing your talk down may help you to think it through in terms of structure and flow. Second, you may be able to time your talk more realistically: for example if you’re asked to be given a 20 min talk you should prepare some 2500–3000 words script (we usually speak at a speed of 120–150 words/minute). Since there is no bigger sin than going overtime in public speaking, this function is very important. Third, preparing scripts may help to really polish your talk at a word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence, joke-by-joke level. This is critical for really important, shorter and rigorously timed talks.
I usually do scripting in Scrivener (by first importing my outlines or mind-maps through the OPML format). Unless the talk is really important I do not go into the 3rd draft of my script, leaving it at the advanced 2nd draft level. This is also the time when I start systematic thinking about the visuals. I write down ideas about which slides to use right there in the script (using a different color). Scrivener is also very helpful in breaking the script into pieces corresponding to individual slides (or series of slides) and then rearranging and grouping them. For example, you may want to have a set of slides corresponding to the Introduction and check how many words it contains (so that you don’t spend too much on it).
Your script can be printed out so that you can refer to it when presenting (use a large size font!) or parsed into your presenters’ notes if you use Keynote or PowerPoint (although I don’t find this very helpful).
As I already mentioned, visuals should not be the starting point of preparing your presentation. Nevertheless, they are extremely important and would often consume most of the time and effort of preparing a high-quality talk. The main principle for designing visuals is drawing the audience’s attention to the idea that you’re discussing at a particular moment. They should not be reading what you’re going to say next. The best software for visuals at this point is undoubtedly Apple Keynote: it has many great templates and amazing design and animation tools, some of which we introduce in other posts.
Is it worth it?
After colleagues watch me presenting they often come to me in a break and say ‘It was very good! But how much time did you spend preparing?’ The answer is ‘A lot’. More than most people realize. Take a 20-minute talk. It’s about 1 hour of outlining. Some 4-6 hours of writing a script (2500 words). Then it may be 20 hours on preparing the slides. Since most time goes into preparing the slides of course it is shorter if some old slides can be re-used. But in general it is 3-4 working days of preparation without counting research.
Is it worth it? Or would it be easier to make some ‘powerpoints’ and forget about it? Well, here is my logic. If I speak to 100 people I am taking 33 hours of their combined time. If they don’t get what I am saying this time is wasted. Investing my time is saving their time. Thus, it is honest and polite to prepare your presentations carefully.