Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Preparing for Your Talk

How do you begin to prepare for your conference talk? Do you jump right into Powerpoint and start typing/inserting graphs? Or do you work with pen and paper first?  If you always start at your computer, you might want to try getting away from it in the beginning.

Try using post-its, a whiteboard, or a pen and paper to sketch out your ideas and get them organized into a logical flow. The reason is that often ideas come to you when you are not at your keyboard. Looking at a series of post-its or pages pinned up on your bulletin board tends to jog some neural pathways that may not be stimulated while sitting at your computer.

I will often draw sketches on a notepad of each slide I wish to make or a point I wish to illustrate.  I can get things diagrammed out and organized in a more logical order before attempting to set up the slides in Powerpoint.  The mere act of sketching can trigger ideas or even point out some problems with your initial plan.  I find that these ideas don't necessarily occur to me if I'm just sitting and staring at the computer screen.  There is something about holding a pen and doodling on a piece of paper that works some kind of magic in the brain (maybe it stimulates the other side of your brain from the one you normally use).

The next point to consider when planning your talk is the decision to actually prepare a talk, not a document.  People tend to try to create a Frankenstein mixture of document and presentation.  The slides are crammed with text, dense tables, detailed figures that are more suited to a paper that can be scrutinized at leisure.  This document/presentation does not work for a talk, particularly one that is only fifteen minutes in length.  The audience simply can't take in that much information; the more information you cram onto a slide the lower the audience's understanding and retention of that information.  What you want to strive for is to create a real presentation, one that is only understandable with you present to deliver it. You can use Powerpoint to create documents--but don't try to use them as presentations.

Powerpoint can lead you into some bad habits (for giving talks), so it's important to be aware of this as you begin to design your talk. The templates that Powerpoint encourages you to use are not necessarily the best way to present your information.  Think for yourself and decide whether the default design will really work to get across your points.  One of the biggest issues is with bullet points.  If you must use them, keep the list short and the points briefly identified.  Don't write out each statement you will make and then read them. Your audience can read faster than you can speak, so they will be way ahead of you and will quickly get bored and stop listening.  If possible, use a photo or a diagram or some visual image to illustrate each point you wish to make. This approach will provide a memorable visual image that helps the audience understand and remember better the points.

Using visuals rather than text alone is consistent with a live talk, not a document to be read.  The visuals also make your points more interesting and memorable.  You may even be able to reduce the length of your talk this way by simultaneously listing points and showing images that provide additional information that you don't have to spell out (the audience can see what your laboratory apparatus looks like).

Next post, I'll talk more about the use of images in presentations.

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