Thursday, February 17, 2011

Four questions to help you prepare your presentation

When preparing your scientific talk, your mindset should on the audience and how it resonates with the message you are presenting. When preparing your talk you should consider yourself, the message and the audience.

In many ways a talk is like a very short relation/friendship between you and the audience. This is no different in scientific presentations.  However, this relation is bizarre love triangle. It is a triangle because of made of you, the message/topic and audience, and bizarre because the only star in it is the audience.

Presentations are like a bizarre love triangle between you, the message and the audience. It is the audience who  gets to call the shots in this relation, not you.

The figure above shows this triangle along with 4 verbs that are essential when preparing: love and know, understand, and resonate. Let analyze them.

1. Do you love/care about the message/topic? If you don't, don't present. Or choose another topic. If you don't love/care the message, then you will prepare poorly, design your visuals the night before your talk, and be disconnected from the audience when you deliver. Ultimately the audience, the significant other, will notice you don't care.

2. Do you know what you are talking about? In scientific presentations this is usually not a big problem, however if you a graduate student there might be details on your research that you don't fully understand. If this the case, which is perfectly OK, and you are hopefully struggling to clarify those unknown details, don't hide them or come with false answers. If time is running out  and you still don't know the answer,  prepare to say "But/And this we/I don't fully understand yet, but we are /I am working on it." The audience won't hang you, on the contrary, they might help you. Consider following that sentence with "But if somebody knows, I would very much appreciate the help!"

Knowing your topic also means to be ready for the discussion session also known and Q&A. Andrew Dlugan from the Six Minutes website has an excellent post on it.  Click here to go there, but remember to come back and finish reading! Getting feedback from your peers, advisers and/or professors will help you to prepare for the Q&A. I discuss feedback here. Don't forget to use the knowledge of the Q&A to improve your next presentation.

3. Do you understand the audience? Presentation guru Nancy Duarte from Duarte Design  formulates questions about understanding (knowing) the audience in her book Slide:ology. Here are some of them in the context of scientific presentations.

  1. What are the like? Professors, students, industry researches? Mathematicians, biologist, lawers, musicians? How much or little knowledge do they have about the topic?
  2. Why are they there? Is it a lecture, where students are there because they have to? Are there to see what's been researched or just to get some idea from another topic they don't know.
  3.  How can you solve their problem? Imagine a member of the audience coming to you asking "Heard your talk, so what? What's there in for me?" How would you answer that question in your talk?
  4. What do you want them to do?  This is known as call to action and it helps you, among other things, to prepare the end of your talk. I personally want the audience to help me with ideas for my research, and figuring out if what I'm doing makes sense and where I else can my research be applied.
  5. How might they resist? This is an important one in research. Research is about change, and people have a natural tendency to resist change. Have previously similar approaches/Ansatz been tested and have failed or not been successful? Is the evidence you are showing not strong enough to support your point? Anticipate this and prepare accordingly.

4. Does the message resonate with the audience? Resonate is the name of Nancy Duarte's latest book.  This is a huge topic and I'll come to it again when I finish reading her book. For now, allow me  to just show you an example of what is meant by "The message resonate with the audience". Below is the speech of Martin Luther King "I have a dream". This message did not resonate with the audience, it continues to.

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