I am posting much later in the week than usual. It was a busy week. Most of my time was dedicated to analyzing data and preparing a research presentation for a group at the university. It was in preparing the presentation that I came up with the topic for this blog post. I realized that the mechanics of giving a presentation were very similar to the mechanics of writing a book. The goal is to make it sell.
I was lucky enough to be trained in how to give presentations by my first mentor, who was passionate about the mechanics of delivering presentations (he even gave a yearly presentation on how to give presentations). These were some of the main points he stressed:
Control the flow of information-
Don’t give any more background than the audience needs to be able to understand and appreciate the rest of the presentation. This is especially important when it comes to the content of individual slides. If you overload the audience with too much information at one time, they will become distracted from the heart of your message. Begin a presentation with a complicated scheme or figure and the audience’s eyes will wander to every part of it except for the area you want them to focus on. Worse, the audiences’ eyes might glaze over entirely when confronted with what appears to be a lecture. In a book, they call this an info dump, and it is a sure way to slow down a story and make people lose interest. In short, deliver the information only when they need it, and never more information than they need.
It is also important to deliver the information in a direct and logical fashion. If you are too vague and ramble, your audience won’t have gained anything in the time they spent listening. You want to anticipate their thoughts, giving them an answer right before they realized they had a question. This will keep them interested and give them confidence that you are an expert in the subject on which you are presenting. It follows that you should never bring up something you will not address or hope people won’t ask about. If you have a curious artifact in a piece of data, don’t draw attention to it, especially if you have no idea why it’s there or what could be causing it. You will be asked questions you can’t answer and the audience will get the impression you are ignoring something important, or just too dense to figure it out.
It is best to assume your audience is intelligent. Having a slide titled What is DNA? will be sure to offend all the geneticists in the room. By the same token, your sci-fi readers will not be pleased with a detailed description of why earth orbits the sun.
Which brings us to our next point.
Know your audience-
Delivering a presentation on muscle physiology and contraction kinetics to a group of geneticists is difficult. Trust me. So it’s important to deliver the information in a way that makes sense to them and gives them a bit of what they are expecting. You can judge your audiences’ reaction to a presentation by how many have fallen asleep in their chairs. On amazon, you can get an idea of your book’s success by number of reviews. At this point, it is too late to go back and fix things. Running these things past your lab or beta-readers will help you narrow down your audience.
If you are struggling to find a way to make your product (research or novel) interesting to the audience, it’s probably not your target audience, and you should not spend your time and effort on them. Selling a horror novel at a Romance Readers Conference is the definition of futile.
Be enthusiastic and confident-
Projecting enthusiasm and confidence is the best way to draw your audience in. But like all things, it is best in moderation. You can litter your presentation with animations and colors and media, just as thoroughly as you can fill your novel with flowery language, imagery, and description. But too much of it will be distracting and off-putting, and make it seem like you’re trying too hard, or compensating for a poorly plotted story or lack of data. Keeping things too colorless and dry, however, will come across as boring. If you sound bored, your audience will be bored too.
It’s okay to be a little nervous. When we put our stuff out there, whether it is in front of a lecture hall or on the virtual bookshelves of Amazon, anxiety is to be expected. I find that I am far more confident in my presentation if I have done a lot of preparation. This includes significant edits and revisions of my slides, and many practice runs with people willing to give me critiques. It is the same with my writing. I am far less nervous about my audience’s impression of my work if I know it is well thought-out and heavily edited for grammar, style, and structure.
Research presentations are a lot like books. The major difference is that your data shouldn’t be fiction (theorizing that your data is the result of ‘magic’ is frowned upon in most scientific circles). But no matter how much you prepare and polish, there will always be those who don’t care for your work and will criticize it. Don’t lose heart. You can’t please everyone… unless there’s free food involved. Nobody complains about free food.