Numerous tips are spread around that you can succeed with your first presentation. I would particularly recommend four of them: Gain clarity about your personal attitude towards presentations. Focus on a few major topics and find the storyline of your presentation. Be interested in your audience and network actively. I promise you: Implement these tips, and you are already covering half the distance for your successful first presentation.
1. Mindset: Positive attitude for your presentation
I myself was still shy in my school days, could hardly speak fluently in front of my classmates and my face was still regularly turning tomato red while speaking in an exposed position in front of others. But I’ve been standing on stage for years with great pleasure and regularly. My first step was the famous jump in at the deep end: I rehearsed and trained a lot. Over time I was able present with high confidence through target-oriented preparation. My ambition as a young scientist, my first successes in presenting at science conferences and the resulting change in my self-image were milestones. To date, I have given hundreds of successful presentations. What they all had in common was the positive self-image that I gradually gained from myself.
Do you also visualize yourself as a doctoral candidate on stage? Can you see and feel how you talk vividly and enthusiastically about your research project and how you successfully flirt with your audience? You can combine those images with positive emotions, creating a valuable cornerstone for your successful presentations.
You can prepare yourself mentally for future presentations and thus develop your self-image positively. Make up your mind where you see yourself today as a speaker and within your science network – and where you would like to see yourself in the future. Of course, this usually does not happen overnight and can take weeks or months. Therefore, think about which steps you can take in order to deliver really good presentations soon.
Rehearse your presentations and ask for feedback
One possibility would be to rehearse in front of your fellow students, in your science network, in front of friends or in a small group and get constructive yet critical feedback. You may find out strengths you already have. Maybe there is also a Toastmasters Club in your city where you can find motivated and open-minded people who can also provide valuable feedback for your presentations. Through regular training you will gain additional experience and sovereignty in your presentations. Last but not least, this kind of training helped me to deliver a convincing presentation while defending my dissertation. As a result, I was able to reply questions from the plenum and the examiners with confidence.
In a further step, you may solve the question of where you will deliver presentations in the future. Since I started studying, I myself have regularly attended scientific and working group conferences, given presentations and poster presentations. With increasing experience, those presentations made me a well-known researcher in the scientific community at the time.
Of course, you know that a well-prepared presentation will give you a sense of achievement. Most blogs deal with content preparation.
However, the best preparation in terms of content will fizzle out if you don’t go into your presentation with the right inner attitude. What I mean by that: Your mental attitude, your self-image, your mindset will also decide whether you successfully master the presentation. So ask yourself in advance: What do you think about yourself when you see yourself on stage? What image do you have of yourself? What is your attitude with regard to your dissertation?
2. Less is really more
In case you haven’t done it already: Clear out your presentation in the next step. Check which content really adds value to your audience. Depending on the target group, this can be very different content: The scientific approach is of course worthwhile if you are a doctoral student presenting to a specialist audience. Reduce the technical terms to a minimum if, for example, you present to people who are not really familiar with the topic. In science slams, on the other hand, the entertainment part will become more valuable.
In any case, throw out everything you don’t really need. You can do so until the omission of further content would make understanding more difficult. That way you gain focus on the essentials – just like professional speakers are doing. This is one major reason that the latter deliver particularly high-quality presentations.
Do you know PechaKucha? In this format, each of the 20 PowerPoint slides is automatically visible for 20 seconds only. The success of this kind of presentation depends especially on whether the speakers are able to keep it short and communicate to the point. This requires a clear focus on the essentials.
Set specific pauses to increase effect
But be careful: Don’t pack your content so tightly that your audience doesn’t have time to take a deep breath. I recently experienced it myself from the listener’s perspective: a speaker combined his tightly packed – and high-quality – content with such a high speech tempo that I had a headache at the end of the 45-minute presentation. What helps against it: Set short effect breaks on purpose. Usually 2-3 seconds are ideal, depending upon context also sometimes longer time. Barack Obama also reinforces his messages with targeted pauses. From one of his speeches I remember a speech break of 16 seconds! Those speakers enduring pauses transmit a high level of sovereignty. Don’t underestimate their effect: On the one hand, accentuated pauses reinforce your messages. You also give your audience enough time to digest the information they have just received. This is particularly effective in a scientific context, as it often involves highly complex content.
In addition, you can repeat the central contents of your presentation in short, memorable sentences. Such repetitions are much more likely to be remembered by your audience than information communicated just once. In addition, you may even spread short, interesting sentences via Twitter and other channels and thus link them to your person – good for your reputation in your network!
3. Turn your project into a gripping story
You will gain further reputation if you pack your presentation into exciting stories: Relate the contents of your presentation to each other. Uncover content-related connections instead of stringing together numerous results. During my time as a doctoral student, this was an uncomfortable and yet important learning process: in one of my first science presentations, for example, I worked through a wealth of series of numbers piece by piece. Contrary to my expectations, my audience was not enthusiastic about this. Rather, they quite rightly asked several times in the discussion about the context of the results: At the time, I had not yet communicated the meaning and objectives of my project in a recognizable way.
Show your personality
If you want to tell a compelling story, be sure to create context, build excitement and arouse the curiosity of the audience. So present only essential results that will provide new insights. Also share some surprising twists in your research so that you can add specific “aha” effects to your audience: Science becomes exciting at the point where it uncovers new insights. If you also manage to weave in your personal experiences from the presented study, you may develop an exciting, yet credible story. You may share interesting anecdotes from your field or laboratory work that will make your audience smile. Personal stories enable you to speak freely. This is more valuable than any elaborately prepared text slide.
Your content comes to life as soon as you develop a complete storyline. Use a language that is easy to understand, even within your science community. Avoid nested sentences. Work with short sentences. Get to the point quickly. This is the only way to share a really interesting story. Close with a short conclusion.
4. Connect with your audience
Will you deliver your first presentation in your working group, in a workshop or at a conference? Then you can enhance your presentation by linking your topic with the topics of your previous or subsequent speakers. Include comments and interesting findings from other presentations. Exchange ideas with your colleagues in advance or invite them to a personal discussion after your presentation. Consider beforehand which questions you would like to discuss.
For this purpose it makes sense that you are also visible outside your presentation. The coffee and lunch breaks of conferences are just as suitable for networking as field excursions. Make an active step towards your colleagues! As a doctoral student, you can network in a targeted way: in the run-up to the event, think about interesting colleagues you may want to contact. Invite your colleagues to interact and discuss controversially – this will create added value for both you and your colleagues. Think about open questions you would like to address and discuss. Another tip: Always take enough business cards with you. A photo of you on the back of your business card increases the recognition value considerably.
If, in addition, you are able to pitch your presentation or topic in one sentence in an understandable way, it will also be easier for you to talk to your colleagues. As for the presentation, a positive attitude is the basis for this, so that you remain in memory with a successful presentation and gradually expand your network.
What else are you interested in to make your first presentation successful? I look forward to a lively discussion with you!
About the author
Dr. Stephen Wagner is a trainer and coach for presentations. As a geographer and natural scientist he has worldwide experience with research projects and presentations. He conveys complex content in a practical, entertaining and understandable way. He works at the interface of science, business and international communication and blogs on his website.