Computing Applications Kode Vicious

Presenting Your Project

The what, the how, and the why of giving an effective presentation.
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Dear KV,

I have a nontechnical question for you. I’ve been asked to make a presentation on the project my team has been working on for the past year. Actually, I wasn’t really asked so much: the eight of us drew straws, and I got the short one. Other than trying to imagine my audience in their underwear—a piece of advice I have now been given at least five times—what would you suggest?

Stage Frightened

Dear Stage,

I am almost positive that “Imagine your audience in their underwear” is just about the worst piece of advice anyone has ever given to a prospective speaker. Instead, there are practical steps you can take in order to ensure your presentation is well received. The most important step is to be prepared, which, as Tom Lehrer has pointed out, is the Boy Scout marching song. Unless you are very good at giving presentations, and from what you say above you’re probably not, you need to know your material backward and forward before trying to explain it to a large group. You might be an expert in the nitty-gritty details of the system you’re describing, but that’s not good enough—in fact, it can be a drawback. No one, no matter how technical, wants to listen to someone drone on about the low-level details of some system. You need not only to know the low-level details but also to be able to talk about the system you are describing at many different levels, from the abstract to the specific. What the best speakers are able to communicate is not just the “what” of a system—that is, the specific details—but also the “how,” which is a higher-level description, and most importantly, the “why.”

The most memorable presentations are the ones that succeed on all three levels: “Here is what the system does, here is how it works, and here is why it’s built that way.” If you keep these three questions in your head while writing your outline and slides, then it is far more likely your presentation will go over well. Presentations full of only “what,” or even “what” and “how,” usually put audiences to sleep.

In preparing a presentation you should start with an outline. I realize many people will say, “But that’s obvious,” but it turns out it’s not. Many people write presentations by starting with a title slide and then adding one slide after another until they feel they have enough to cover the material. Writing a presentation in this way inevitably leads to a wandering style of presentation that is more like a tortured walk through a maze of twisty paths, all different.

I have a template for my presentations, which includes sections for Introduction, History, and Conclusion, and I always end with a Questions slide. Even having just that much initial structure will help you to focus your thoughts on what you’re trying to communicate to your audience.

Although this is necessary boiler-plate, it is not sufficient. You need to pick three to five important points, depending on how much time you have allotted to present your material, and make those important points the foci of the internal sections of the talk. Make sure to introduce each point; the points are not supposed to be surprises you foist upon the audience at the end of each section. Make sure each point covers the what, how, and why before moving on to the next point.

You should think of your outline as a way to brainstorm on the presentation. Put everything you can think of in as a potential slide title, leave out the details, and then go back later and edit out the things that don’t work. It is always easier to cut material at the last minute than it is to create something new.

One common issue all novice speakers have is figuring out how long the final presentation will run. I have found that, on average, most people do well with two minutes per slide. Although some people speak very quickly—in fact, I know an excellent speaker whose talk was once described as “being shot with a machine gun”—and others quite slowly, the reason for two minutes per slide is to keep the audience paying attention. When you first display a slide people will, believe it or not, actually read it. If you put up one slide and then speak for an hour, then it had better be the most interesting slide that has ever existed. Very few one-slide presentations are effective. Conversely, if you are flipping slides every 15 to 30 seconds you will lose your audience’s attention.

Now that you have your slides together, it’s time to go over a few important points about actually giving the presentation. Many people practice their presentations in front of a mirror, or a very kind colleague, friend, or loved one. I recommend avoiding torturing your significant other with your presentation unless he or she is also involved in the project.

A presentation should not be a one-way broadcasting of information but rather a conversation between the speaker and the audience.

When speaking in public it is important to remember you are trying to engage the audience. A presentation should not be a one-way broadcasting of information but rather a conversation between the speaker and the audience. You are telling the audience a story, and as such you should try to be engaging and to keep the audience interested. Do not speak in a monotone, and don’t read the slides to the audience. Most audiences are literate enough to read your slides; you don’t have to do it for them. The slides should act as a prompt for you to explain the what, how, or why of some point, but they are not lines on a teleprompter for you to read.

If at some point during the presentation you find yourself writing on a chalkboard, whiteboard, or other visual aid, do not speak to the board. One of my professors in college would stand at the chalkboard and read the textbook to it while writing out notes on the board; he barely, if ever, spoke to the class. I can tell you that I tried increasingly high levels of caffeine to keep myself awake, but no matter how much I took I could never remain awake through the full hour.

It’s important to pace yourself as you speak. Remembering to breathe is quite important, and something that new speakers can actually forget to do. Panting at the end of each slide is a good indication that you ought to be breathing a bit more. Many speakers like to ask for questions from the audience throughout the talk, in part to keep the audience awake but also as a way of pacing themselves. While the “Any questions?” tactic can be useful, it must be used sparingly. Some audiences, particularly in Asia, do not ask questions during a presentation but only at breaks or after the presentation. If you call for questions two or three times and receive no response, then stop asking and wait until the end of the presentation. There are few things more annoying than having the speaker whine about how no one is asking questions.

When someone does ask a question, unless you’re presenting to a group of fewer than 10 people in a conference room, make sure to repeat the question. The person asking the question is very likely facing you, and not the audience, and it’s your responsibility to keep the audience involved throughout the entire talk. If you don’t know the answer to a question, then do not try to make it up as you go along. Some people are able to make things up as they go along, but this is not what I’d recommend for someone doing their first, or even their tenth, presentation. You may also find there are people who are asking questions in order to prove how smart they are, rather than because they are interested in the answer. If you have one of these people in your audience, simply say, “That’s very interesting, and I’d like to talk about that after the presentation.” After a few such rebuffs they usually quiet down.

Finally, a piece of very basic, and perhaps base, advice: Eat lightly before your talk and make sure to use the bathroom, whether you think you need to or not, before you enter the room and begin your presentation.


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    DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1787234.1787247

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