Whether you’re in geoscience or accountancy, you’re living in a PowerPoint world. This one piece of software dominates the way we approach presentations. For those geoscientists who used to travel to meetings burdened by profiles, maps, and transparencies, the benefits are obvious. A tiny flash drive does the trick now, or we can just pull the stuff off the net. Then there’s the flexibility — we can reorder, combine, import, animate, and alter with minimum effort. We should be in presentation Nirvana.
Unfortunately, as with most things digital, the PowerPoint world brings its own pitfalls. There are probably more bad presentations around than ever before, because it’s just too easy. Throw a few slides together from diverse sources and you’ve got a scientific talk. That’s why many of our geological conferences are over-subscribed with substandard papers. The tool can be misused, and the casualty is good scientific communication. However, I’m not writing this to bewail the standard of geological presentations. There’s a more pressing matter — your career.
Your contact with the power brokers is probably limited. A presentation is a rare occurrence when you, personally, are being showcased. Trust me on this — a single presentation can leave a lasting impression and be pivotal in your career, whether academic or industrial. I’ve been on both sides of the leadership fence and I know it’s true. I’ve also observed that getting a few big things right is paramount; the rest is purely cosmetic.
Top of my list is this: enthusiasm conquers almost everything, including lack of formal technique. There are courses that claim to iron out wrinkles in your communication skills, but be careful you don’t lose what comes naturally. Most of these courses will put you on video so you can see your idiosyncrasies laid bare. You could end up more self-conscious than before. What really counts is engagement with your subject, looking your audience in the eye, and making them part of your passion. If that involves waving your arms about, so be it. I’ve seen people with severe tics and stammers give storming presentations.
Next: when you rehearse, concentrate hardest on what connects the current slide to the next one. You already know the content of each slide pretty well. But just describing them in turn is like one of those embarrassing after-dinner speeches where the speaker keeps saying ‘And another thing…’. The links turn a series of disjointed slides into a story, and create a flow that will both engage and impress your audience.
At the same time, think about who your audience is. Are they geoscientists or civilians? Are they management, your peers, or some combination? Then pitch your talk accordingly. ‘Polyphase deformation in retreating extensional subduction systems’ will impress your colleagues, but will send the average executive into a reverie on last night’s big game.
As a geologist, treat raw GIS outputs and 3D workstation screen dumps with caution. Wonderful as these tools are at assembling and representing geological information, without editing they don’t usually make very good slides. Remember, your public has only seconds to understand a picture. Simplify maps: you are trying to communicate an idea, not impress people with the complexity of your data.
Carefully tailor your presentation to the allotted time. The old rule about a minute per slide isn’t bad. Most critically, try to make sure you have enough time to say what you want to say. We all underestimate the time we need. You’ve heard it before: ‘I can do this in 15 minutes, easy!’ And you know the usual outcome. If you’re on a strict time schedule, and you have any say at all, try to keep the discussion for the end. It’s very easy for a presentation to be derailed by overenthusiastic debate so you never get to make your main point.
Don’t revisit and rephrase points, except perhaps in your conclusions. I inwardly groan when someone, having explained a point perfectly well, then says ‘So what I mean is…’ It sounds like you’re having trouble grasping the point yourself, and of course it creates time stress.
Finally, use bullets as cues, not scripts. The bulleted list is a staple PowerPoint tool, but it’s critical not to overload it with text. Reading out a wordy point verbatim sounds unprofessional and, because your audience can actually read, they are probably doing so instead of listening to you!
Remember, you have every reason to be confident. You have a tremendous advantage over your audience: They’re coming to this cold, whereas you’ve prepared hard, got a good storyline, and know it inside out. For 20 minutes, you are the world expert. So unleash your enthusiasm and go knock ’em dead!