Preparing for Presentations

Presentations have been on my mind a lot recently. Of course, this is no surprise considering I had my seminar this week. But, it has also come up in a few other contexts as well – from group meetings where a person had to present on the spot to discussions about being a TA.

Talking about presentations (both preparing and giving them) with others is always informative. Everyone has their own tips and tricks as to how they prepare and what gets them through. For some people, it’s writing out exactly what they’re going to say to each slide. For others, it’s the number of times they practice that matters most.

But, like most things, what works for you is unlikely to be exactly what works for the person next to you. And so while talking with others is great, the best thing you can do for yourself, is to try out the different techniques you think might work for you, and keep the ones that do while discarding those that don’t.

I always start by making a draft of all my slides. While I always aim to get the ‘final version’ the firs time, I never hit it. Because often what makes sense when you’re designing them, doesn’t make quite as much sense when you go to deliver it. But I want to start with some idea of what I think I want to talk about and then I use my practice sessions to add/rearrange/remove content as necessary.

Once I have an initial version of my slides (from start to end), I start practicing. There are suggestions all over the place for the “right” number of times to practice (some say 7, some say 5-10, and others say 15!). I’ve never counted how many times I go through, because it always depends on how the practice sessions go.

My first couple of run throughs are always about finding those errors on slides and usually rearranging content so it makes more sense. During these practice sessions, I’ll stop and make changes on the spot. But, I always continue from where I left off. The goal being to make it from the start to the finish. I don’t worry about how long it takes here, because I’m usually stopping every slide or two to make corrections.

Once I’m more confident about the ordering of the content and the quality of the slides, I move on to practicing with a focus on time and delivery. During these sessions, I’ll stand and present out loud, like I was giving the presentation to a live audience. (I know some people use mirrors, but I’ve never done that as I think it’d be distracting.) Based on these practice sessions, I can figure out if I need to add or remove content and then do so.

I usually stop practicing when I can a) get through a presentation without having to stop and change something on the slides (which sometimes means I tell myself they’re good enough and to stop changing stuff) and b) I’m around the right length.

I’d estimate for my seminar this whole process took about 5 run throughs. Which is actually more than I would have guessed I’d spend doing. So maybe the 7 isn’t so inaccurate after all.

I do want to put out a word of warning about over practicing. Yes, this is possible. And it’s usually quite noticeable. Because people who have over practiced (in my experience) have ended up memorizing their presentation. A memorized presentation (versus one where the person just knows their stuff) can usually be identified the moment the presenter is asked a question/interrupted. It’s not that they don’t know their stuff, but that they have a lot of trouble getting going again after being interrupted. When you practice at by yourself, you rarely get interrupted (unless you do so to yourself). This means, you can lose your train of thought and forget your place in the middle of the spiel.

My last piece of advice is to use the ‘note’ function for your presentation as rarely as possible. The more you write in the notes section, the more likely you are to start reading your entire presentation to your audience instead of presenting it. And yes, there is a difference.

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